Migration flows into Europe are changing. A decade ago most migrants entered Europe via North Africa, straight across the Mediterranean; but the main route is now through the Eastern Mediterranean, with many trying to cross through Greece. The violence suffered by asylum seekers in Greece is well-documented in international media and signals a growing cause for concern.
This was the background to a Maastricht Studium Generale debate, “Knocking at the Doors of Fortress Europe: Migration Flows from the Maghreb to Europe: Is there a Long-term Solution?”, held on Wednesday 15 January 2014.
The debate started with an introduction by Natasja Reslow, Postdoc Fellow at Maastricht Law Faculty. She spoke about the controversial policies of the EU’s Frontex Agency, EU Mobility Partnerships and the changing nature of asylum flows and policies to Europe. Hildegard Schneider, Dean of the Faculty of Law led the debate and brought forth many questions on the relationship between EU asylum policy and migrants rights.
Marieke Wissink, PhD Fellow at FASoS, noted how Greece currently has a massive backlog of asylum cases and simply does not have the capacity to process all the people trying to claim asylum. She asked whether these people have a right to claim asylum and, if we agree it is a right, how can EU countries deny this right?
As a PhD Fellow at the School of Governance, I said that we need to remember that there are currently more than 10 million refugees in the world in need of assistance. In 2013 more people crossed the Strait of Aden from the Horn of Africa to Yemen (107,000+) than into the EU (roughly 65,000). Migrants do not have the right to claim asylum in Yemen and the conditions are far poorer than what asylum seekers face in Europe. This does not excuse the poor treatment of asylum seekers in Europe, but we need to contextualize the global realities of migrants.
Hildegard Schneider, highlighted a directive from the European Court of Justice stating that EU countries should no longer return asylum seekers to Greece, as normally allowed under the Dublin II Convention (which regulates common asylum law in the EU). Although not discussed at the debate, I can also note that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has released a report asking EU countries to stop returning asylum seekers to Bulgaria due to poor human rights conditions at its reception facilities. International media have also flagged France and Spain for their poor conditions, albeit not to the same level as Bulgaria.
This led to an additional discussion regarding the concept of burden sharing. Katharina Eisele, researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies, stressed the need to share asylum caseloads across Europe, arguing that Northern countries should better support Southern countries in terms of the sheer number of asylum cases.
I added that European countries should also – from an international perspective – share more of the burden. In terms of resettlement, Sweden has the largest resettlement quota in Europe at 1900 people per year; but this is minuscule compared to the 50,000 refugees resettled in the USA and 10,000 in Australia each year.
The debate concluded with the return to an earlier comment by Maarten Vink, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, about a common EU asylum processing procedure. I think there are many questions to this including: How would this be managed? Where would asylum cases be processed? How could EU countries be encouraged to take asylum seekers? On the other hand, would a common system better ensure the rights of asylum seekers? The topic poses many questions about the role of the EU in ensuring the protection of migrants and further harmonisation of EU asylum procedures. I also think it recalls Australia’s controversial policy of processing maritime asylum seekers offshore, for which it has received great criticism from human rights groups. Might Europe be tying itself to the same fate?
There are still many challenges for the EU’s asylum policy; challenges which may need complex solutions and which should not only protect the rights of migrants but also keep a balanced approach to asylum law.
UNU / H. Hudson
UN Photo / T. Jones