One month after fires swept through Europe’s largest, most squalid refugee camp, the EU’s migration policies present a picture as desolate as the blackened ruins of Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos. The latest effort at overhauling these policies is a European Commission “pact on asylum and migration”, which is not a pact at all. Its proposals sharply divide the EU’s 27 governments.
In an attempt to appease central and eastern European countries hostile to admitting asylum-seekers, the commission suggests, in an Orwellian turn of phrase, that they should operate “relocation and return sponsorships”, dispatching people refused entry to their places of origin. This sort of task is normally reserved for nightclub bouncers.
The grim irony is that Hungary and Poland, two countries that would presumably be asked to take charge of such expulsions, are the subject of EU disciplinary proceedings due to alleged violations of the rule of law. It remains a mystery how, if the commission proposal moves forward, the EU will succeed in binding Hungary and Poland into a common asylum policy and bend them into accepting EU definitions of the rule of law.
Perhaps the best thing to be said of the commission’s plan is that, unlike the UK government, EU policymakers are not toying with hare-brained schemes of sending asylum-seekers to Ascension Island in the south Atlantic. Such options are the imagined privilege of a former imperial power not divested of all its far-flung possessions.
Yet the commission’s initiative still reeks of wishful thinking. It foresees a process in which authorities swiftly check the identities, security status and health of irregular migrants, before returning them home, placing them in the asylum system or putting them in temporary facilities. This will supposedly decongest EU border zones, as governments will agree how to relocate new arrivals. But it is precisely the lack of such agreement since 2015 that led to Moria’s disgraceful conditions.
The commission should not be held responsible for governments failing to shoulder their responsibilities. It is also justified in emphasising the need for a strong EU frontier. This is a precondition for free movement inside the bloc, vital for a flourishing single market.
True, the Schengen system of border-free internal travel is curtailed at present because of the pandemic, not to mention restrictions introduced in some countries after the 2015 refugee and migrant crisis. But no government wants to abandon Schengen. Where they fall out with each other is over the housing of refugees and migrants.
Europe’s overcrowded, unhygienic refugee camps, and the paralysis that grips EU policies, are all the more shameful in that governments no longer face a border emergency. Some 60,800 irregular migrants crossed into the EU between January and August, 14 per cent less than the same period in 2019, according to the EU border agency.
By contrast, there were 1.8m illegal border crossings in 2015, a different order of magnitude. Refugees from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria made desperate voyages across the Mediterranean, with thousands drowning in ramshackle boats. Some countries, led by Germany and Sweden, were extremely generous in opening their doors to refugees. Others were not.
The roots of today’s problems lie in the measures devised to address that crisis, above all a 2016 accord with Turkey. Irregular migrants were kept on Moria and other Greek islands, designated “hotspots”, in the expectation that failed asylum applicants would be smoothly returned to Turkey, its coffers replenished by billions of euros in EU assistance. In practice, few went back to Turkey and the understaffed, underfunded “hotspots” became places of tension between refugees and locals.
Unable to agree on a relocation scheme among themselves, EU governments lapsed into a de facto policy of deterrence of irregular migrants. The pandemic provided an excuse for Italy and Malta to close their ports to people rescued at sea. Visiting the Greek-Turkish border in March, Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, declared: “I thank Greece for being our European aspida [shield].”
The legitimacy of EU refugee policies depends on adherence to international law, as well the bloc’s own rules. Its practical success requires all governments to share a responsibility for asylum-seekers that goes beyond ejecting unwanted individuals. Otherwise the EU will fall into the familiar trap of cobbling together unsatisfactory half-measures that guarantee more trouble in the future.