Europe’s asylum policies are arbitrary and set a bad example

The new Europe — its president, commission and parliament — needs to resolve the issue — a tall order — or at least defuse some of its political explosiveness.
Saturday 07/09/2019
A refugee family show their papers to a policeman as they arrive at a detention camp in northern Greece. (AFP)
Unfair system. A refugee family show their papers to a policeman as they arrive at a detention camp in northern Greece. (AFP)

In the weeks until she takes charge as president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen and her transition team have been trying to work out portfolios and initiatives. The one thing no one is really mentioning but which needs doing is migration.

Four years after the crisis that sent a million Syrians to Europe, setting off a chain reaction that upended politics across the continent, Europe still lacks a common asylum policy.

The prevailing system is arbitrary and unfair, putting an intolerable burden on front-line countries, provoking bickering between EU members and casting doubt on the fact an internationally respected asylum and refugee convention exists.

Europe’s growing reluctance to take in refugees, together with the disdain shown them by Donald Trump’s America, is setting a terrible example. A lengthening list of countries that have traditionally hosted migrants and asylum seekers — from Jordan and India in Asia to Peru and Trinidad and Tobago in the Americas — are forcing refugees to leave. Turkey recently cracked down on undocumented migrants, with implications for an already overcrowded Greek asylum camp on the island of Lesbos.

Why this should be the case is a mystery. Much smaller numbers of migrants are crossing the Mediterranean into Europe compared to 2015. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says there have been 43,000 this year but even this is politically charged.

Italy, for instance, passed a security law in August that punishes migrant aid and rescue ships as accomplices of human traffickers. The law, pushed by Italy’s hard-line former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, is a violation of international maritime law, which cites an obligation to assist anyone in distress at sea but it is Italian law, at least for now.

There is no clarity that the new government that took charge in Rome as of September 5 will address the hideousness at the core of that law. The only positive indication is that Salvini’s successor as interior minister is Luciana Lamorgese, a civil servant and migration policy specialist. She has been closely involved in refugee and migrant reception centres in northern Italy and has promoted emollient migrant integration events and policies.

A new Italian interior minister or even new legislative action in Italy — changing the law, repealing it or writing a new one — cannot hide the basic reality. Europe needs to find a way to address the migration issue, urgently, sustainably and appropriately. Italy is not the only EU country seeking to deny entry to migrant rescue vessels. Malta and France, too, have refused permission.

In March, the European Union pretty much gave up on the humanitarian rescue at sea of uninvited migrants by ending naval patrols. The rationale was that patrols emboldened people smugglers.

This is unconscionable. The new Europe — its president, commission and parliament — needs to resolve the issue — a tall order — or at least defuse some of its political explosiveness.

How might this be done? Nothing is easy, especially at this point, but two clear actions would point the way forward. Europe could offer financial incentives to countries that share the migrant load and penalise those that refuse. It could provide money and manpower to a system for expedited processing of asylum claims.

David Sassoli, the new president of the European Parliament, recently said that if Europe cannot protect migrants at sea “it has lost its soul, as well as its heart.” Soon, it will be time for von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, to offer her view of how things stand and how they might be remade.

Outsourcing migration control to Turkey’s and Libya’s changing powers-that-be is not seemly, right or sustainable. Nor is a see-nothing-hear-nothing-say-nothing policy that allows political forces in European countries to render the migrant an unperson.

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