Managing migration, both to and within the European Union, has become a headache for both EU Member States and the European Commission. Most of the 2012 migration portfolio has been taken up with resolving a series of challenges to existing EU policy, from Schengen to the Common European Asylum System. Beyond EU borders, the continued inflow into Turkey of Syrians fleeing violence in their country suggests there will be additional pressure for the European Union to offer a more concerted humanitarian response in 2013 (see Issue #4, Forced Migration: No Resolution in Sight for Syrians, Violent Outbreaks Displace Thousands across African Continent).
Asylum Policy and Practices Under Review
In February, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy that Italy violated the European Convention of Human Rights by intercepting would-be migrants and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea and forcing their immediate return to Libya on the basis of a bilateral agreement between the two countries. The court found that Italy's actions exposed the Somali and Eritrean nationals to the risk of ill treatment in Libya, and that the intercepting authorities had an obligation to abide by the principle of non-refoulement to ensure that individuals have access to asylum procedures, even when the interception occurred outside of EU territory. In addition to nullifying Italy's bilateral agreement, this judgment has potentially wide-reaching implications for joint-EU maritime operations in the Mediterranean.
Asylum concerns have also put under threat visa liberalization with the Balkan region. Politicians from six EU Member States — Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands — called for the suspension of the liberalization regime, following a spike in the number of Balkan nationals claiming asylum in the European Union. As a result, the EU Commission proposed a "safeguard" mechanism for reintroducing visa controls, in the event of a significant rise in numbers, which is still under negotiation.
The Greek Issue
Perhaps the most pressing issue is the Greek government's ability to live up to its asylum and border management obligations amid its grave financial woes. The country continues to struggle with porous borders, escalating asylum applications, and a detention system that fails to meet basic EU standards. The EU Commission and Member States are currently discussing how to financially support the construction of asylum and border management systems that respect EU obligations, though many are skeptical that the Greek government has the technical and human resources to implement the changes needed. The Greek crisis has also affected other EU legislation, such as the Dublin II Regulation, which typically requires asylum seekers to be returned by EU Member States to the European country through which they first gained entry. (See Issue #8: Major Immigration Countries Take a Crack at Addressing Thorny Issues of Immigrant Detention).
In addition, much of 2012 was taken up with negotiating revised rules for the Schengen system, which included wording on the reintroduction of internal border controls in cases of "persistent serious deficiencies" in border management, a change squarely aimed at Greece.
On the Horizon for 2013
Looking forward, EU policymakers also are watching closely the ongoing violent conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011. Since the onset of the violence, approximately 16,500 Syrians have filed asylum claims in EU countries, and nearly 124,000 refugees have registered in Turkey. In 2013, EU states may face difficult decisions regarding Syrian displacement, including the possibility that EU rules on temporary protection may have to be invoked.