E.g., 06/13/2024
E.g., 06/13/2024
The Asylum Crisis in Europe: Designed Dysfunction

Much of the chaos and distress being seen in Southeast Europe, as Greece, Hungary, and other countries on the Western Balkans route are grappling with massive inflows of asylum seekers is caused by confusion about who exactly is in need of protection, who should be responsible for protection, and a lack of on-the-ground capacity to respond. The problem is conceptual, political, and practical, and the European Union’s legislative proposals—including President Juncker’s newly unveiled plan to distribute 160,000 refugees throughout the 28 Member States—aim to manage, rather than solve, what is an international, as well as a European, challenge.

This challenge is, in essence, a product of a deep mismatch between the human imperatives impelling so many to undertake often dangerous journeys and an interlocking set of EU systems and policies unequal to this extraordinary phenomenon, in no small part because each Member State has its own self-interests, capacities, and political realities.

On the one side of the coin, asylum seekers and migrants make their own calculations and choices. Driven by the desire to evade conflict and instability, combined with the realization that long-term settlement in neighboring countries is unsustainable, those who can spend thousands of euros to reach Europe. And like most of us making an investment, they wish to gain the best value and reach the country that they believe offers the best future. Poor conditions upon arrival in countries such as Hungary and Greece only serve to reaffirm that conviction. This future might be related to family and friends in the same country, the prospect of a stable legal status, or the likelihood of a job, an education, a career. Countries that offer all three become the most attractive of all, as Germany has discovered. 

Beyond the self-determination of those seeking asylum is the political self-interest of states. For those states most geographically exposed to irregular entries and those that present little appeal to asylum seekers and migrants,  there are few political incentives to build the capacity to welcome arrivals; offer a swift, transparent asylum adjudication; and either integrate those in need of protection, or return those who are not. Such systems cost money to build, and it seems easier to leave those who have already developed systems to continue to do so. 

The intertwined, and conflicting, imperatives of the European Union’s Schengen system, the Dublin Convention, and international humanitarian obligations put these parallel sets of human and policy interests on a collision course. To ensure the sustainability of Schengen mobility without internal borders in a context of 28 different immigration and asylum systems, the European Union has developed a set of robust common rules to ensure that all states play roughly the same game. Dublin has been at the forefront of these rules, assigning responsibility for asylum to the country through which an asylum seeker first arrives. In theory, as long as each country upholds its obligations with respect to external border management, Dublin rules, and asylum adjudication, all will be well. 

In practice, as evidenced by the ugly chaos recently witnessed in Hungary, the political sanctity that surrounds the concept of Dublin is undermined by the realities that accompany noncompliance with its conditions. In the current context, countries with long, exposed external borders experience immediate (though rarely long-term) pressures of new arrivals and those considered attractive asylum destinations—Germany and Sweden—shoulder the responsibility for long-term hosting and ultimately integration of those deemed eligible for protection. Meanwhile, the majority of European countries can “win” through a deliberate strategy of deafness and continued lack of capacity. This is not new. Close observers of the European Union’s management of migration and asylum policies have long expected that the unresolved dysfunctions of incomplete EU systems would at some point be laid bare by changing migration dynamics or the onset of a refugee emergency. Five years ago, in Greece, it became abundantly clear that some countries were living up to expectations on paper, but not in practice, and capacity for managing mixed flows were vastly outpaced by flows into Europe far smaller than those being seen today. 

The Refugee Convention prescribes the responsibility to protect individuals at risk of persecution, but is vague as to whether a would-be refugee should get to choose which country that responsibility should fall upon. The self-determination of individuals to achieve the best personal outcome—a quality usually lauded in popular culture—has become a thorn in the side of European countries attempting to establish an orderly system of collective solidarity on asylum. And therein lies the rub. Asylum seekers have the right to seek protection, but their right to choose where is disputed. But in a continent with no internal borders, that legal question becomes largely moot.

States do not wish to lose either the Dublin or the Schengen system. But whilst there are alternatives to the Dublin system that might reflect solidarity, there are few alternatives to the Schengen system that allow for the same internal mobility throughout Europe. Ultimately, the slow erosion of Schengen rules will be the higher price paid if the status quo continues, the realization of which is driving much of the European response, notably proposals for relocation.  

The Commission’s Legislative Package

The package launched alongside President Juncker’s State of the Union address on September 9 seek to address European solidarity, as well as ensure a balance between protection for those in need and credible enforcement for those found not to be in need. The measures are a necessary stopgap, but far from an enduring solution and the political stakes overshadow the practical implications.

At the core is the enlarged proposal for relocation of 120,000 asylum seekers across Europe, from Greece, Italy, and now Hungary, in addition to the proposed relocation of 40,000 arrivals from Greece and Italy (of which around 32,000 places were pledged at the beginning of the summer). This is coupled with a proposal to make relocation in such emergency situations a permanent feature of the Common European Asylum System, though the exact trigger mechanism remains unclear. To further bolster solidarity, EU Member States that insist they are unable to participate due to extreme circumstances will have to make a financial contribution equal to 0.002 percent of their GDP, with those funds paid into the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF). Based on 2014 GDP and the proposed reallocation figures, a country such as Cyprus would have to pay 350,000 euros to avoid relocating 276 asylum seekers, or approximately 1,270 euros per person. 

For many countries that do not wish to host asylum seekers, and notably the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the opportunity to “buy out” of their asylum responsibilities might be as attractive as it would be repugnant to those countries currently dealing with the realities of adjudication, settlement, and integration. Concepts based on “trading” quotas tend to underestimate the human core of asylum. It remains unclear under what circumstances such opting out might be allowed: would a country with a legitimate lack of reception capacity be “duly justified”?

Aside from deep political resistance to the distribution of Europe’s responsibilities via relocation, two challenges remain. First, whilst arrival numbers increase daily, the details of how the mechanism will function in practice have yet to be worked out. Greece, in particular, is struggling to even offer the most basic humanitarian response. A sophisticated structure for relocation is presently beyond imagining for profoundly overstretched officials, and the suggested two-month relocation process (once a country has expressed its willingness to relocate) seems deeply optimistic.

Second, many of those arriving have strong views about where they wish to be. It is unlikely that individuals willing to make the dangerous journey to reach Germany will balk at a short trip within the Schengen area, even if it means losing legal status. This is compounded by the fact that, in many countries, policies to welcome and integrate both migrants and refugees are still in their infancy, and critically underfunded. Whilst the politics of relocation dominate the discussion, the mechanics of how it will work in the longer term will also need to be made robust. Currently, a carrot-and-stick approach is envisaged: improving the quality of reception whilst threatening return to the country of relocation. But more will be needed, and little mention is made either of the preferences of asylum seekers themselves (beyond reuniting family members), and the longer-term integration needs. Nongovernmental and local actors can play a key role here, but remain weakly supported in much of Central Europe.

Other suggestions, including an EU-wide safe country of origin list, also suffer from an implementation challenge. It is one thing to agree that nationals from a particular country are unlikely to require protection. It is another to then effectively return those individuals in a timely manner, particularly if that partner state is unwilling. The Western Balkans states listed in the proposal represent low-hanging fruit. Further afield, consensus on safety and capacity to return begin to falter.

What Is Missing?

The proposals focus on solutions for what has been framed as a European crisis, with an emphasis on resolving current tensions and imbalances that conflicting EU frameworks have created, in order to enable a resumption of the status quo. But this focus misses several critical realities that must be addressed.

First, by focusing on the eventual relocation of individuals across Europe, the immediate local situation in many countries has been underplayed. This is particularly notable on the Greek islands, where conditions are dire. Whilst the European Commission has allocated emergency funding for a number of states (including Austria and Hungary) through AMIF, this money takes time to be channelled through national authorities and spent. The effective use of these funds also depends on the capacity (and political will) to apply the funds appropriately, a capacity lacking in Greece.

Policymakers wish to see Greece itself take charge as a matter of principle; given conditions on the ground, this principle needs to give way to expediency. The EU crisis protection mechanism can catalyze a rapid response to address emergency situations ranging from earthquakes to forest fires, but require the Member States in question to activate it, and Greece only did so at the beginning of September. Greater use of mechanisms that can rapidly respond will require further augmentation, beyond “hotspots,” and multipurpose reception centers that are currently under consideration.

To avoid similar situations in the future, the European Union also needs to invest in stronger mechanisms for early warning, not just at the borders of Europe, but when refugee crises emerge across the globe. EU policymakers long expected an exponential increase in Syrian arrivals and recognized the growing salience of the Western Balkans as a route to Europe. But little was done to prepare effectively, highlighting a weakness of coordination and leadership, particularly amongst foreign policy actors. Policymakers need to narrow the gap between recognizing the emergence of a foreign policy crisis and linking it to policies to bolster protection in Europe and around the globe.

Second, the critical capacity challenge within Europe has distracted many from the emergency refugee situation beyond the borders of the European Union. Many arrivals are not coming directly from Syria or Somalia, but are moving from regions of first protection near their home countries. Countries under extreme pressure such as Jordan and Lebanon can no longer cope with the sheer number of refugees and are under increasing pressure to reduce refugee numbers, with conditions deteriorating fast. This is not a short-term crisis. It will be with policymakers for the next decade, and should be considered an international as well as a European challenge to address, and one where European leaders can drive a discussion with international partners.

The Common European Asylum System will need to fundamentally evolve in the next years to reduce some of the dysfunction evident today. The measures announced by President Juncker, if implemented effectively, may reduce some of the short-term tensions that many European countries are experiencing, but do not address the longer-term systemic challenge. Other ideas that have been put forward, including widespread calls to increase legal channels to access asylum in Europe are extremely valid. But they will likely act as a valve, rather than resolve, the fundamental tension that exists between large-scale protection in the region and territorial access to asylum for the “lucky” few. Currently, there is little evidence as to how resettlement, humanitarian visas, and labor migration channels could be deployed most effectively and, critically, on what scale, to reduce the impetus amongst refugee populations to undertake an independent journey with smugglers. This knowledge gap will need to be filled.

Policymakers across Europe are already thinking about what deeper changes might be needed, and how to find consensus on reform. This reflection needs to take place with a broader question in mind: what is the fundamental goal of European asylum today? Is it to offer immediate short-term protection in situations of large-scale conflict, or to offer a new start to those with dimming prospects of return in the long term, and on what basis? It may be both, but what is clear right now is that EU policy, as currently designed, can achieve neither one nor the other fairly and effectively.

Elizabeth Collett is Director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute Europe and is Senior Advisor to MPI's Transatlantic Council on Migration. Her work focuses in particular on European migration and immigrant integration policy.

Editor's Note: This commentary was updated to correct the share Cyprus would have to pay if it chose to forego accepting asylum seekers.