Since 2014, the European Union (EU) has seen a steep rise in migrants (both economic and forced) crossing its external borders. Approximately 1.3 million and 1.2 million new asylum applications (mainly by Syrian nationals) were submitted in the EU in 2015 and 2016 (respectively). The numbers were almost twice as high as the previous peak of the early 1990s, triggered by the Balkan wars.
However, the scale of this “crisis” is less apparent when the number of newcomers is set against the EU-28’s population of about 513 million. Moreover, out of over 1.2 million asylum applications lodged in 2016, fewer than 300,000 individuals were granted protection (refugee status or other). Why then have migration flows since 2014 been dubbed a “crisis”? And what was the “crisis” about?
The migration “crisis” did not evolve in a political, economic and social vacuum. Populist right-wing parties garnered support by presenting migration as a threat to the security of states and their peoples. This was especially visible in the “new” EU members, such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. However, it must be emphasized that migration issues have played a huge role in domestic debates across Europe.
Like the EU, the CEAS is a unique creation. The System is based on several Directives and Regulations that harmonize asylum application procedures in the EU. The principles of CEAS need to be viewed through the Schengen Area rules that provided for abolition of internal borders in the EU. As asylum-seekers apply for protection in the first EU country of arrival, outer EU border states have been overburdened with applications. As the countries of origin of migrants during the current “crisis” were predominantly Southern Neighbourhood states (especially Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Libya), most asylum seekers were crossing to Italy, Greece, Hungary, and to a lesser extent Spain and Malta.
The CEAS did not meet the challenge of the massive influx. In 2015, thousands of migrants were waiting in Keleti railway station in Budapest for their fate to be decided by the Hungarian authorities and governments of neighboring EU states. With the decision of the German and Austrian chancellors to open the borders and let the asylum seekers apply in second or third countries of arrival, it became clear that the system was indeed operating in a “crisis” mode. At that time, EU leaders had already decided that one element of the reaction to the influx would be the establishment of “quotas” to relocate migrants between member countries. The aim was to help alleviate the burden on outer border EU states. The quotas were considered mandatory, but did not have unanimous support throughout the EU, the strongest opponents being the Visegrad Group members (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia).
The quota system was only one of the common actions that EU leaders (at least the required decision-making majority) decided to take. Among the most important other ones were: to strengthen controls on EU external borders; to work hand in hand with third countries to control migration movements to the EU (the most well-known being negotiations with Turkey that resulted in financial support to Ankara for keeping Syrian refugees on its territory, culminating in the bilateral EU-Turkey deal in 2016); and to enhance return and readmission policies, while further reforming the CEAS.
These collective EU measures were not enough to secure all member states’ interests. The migration “crisis” led to unilateral actions, which, at least to some extent, questioned the values of asylum-seekers’ protection and led to increasing fragmentation of EU action in the field of asylum policies, even if they complied with community laws. Two of the most visible effects were reinstatement of border controls by Austria, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway (as a European Economic Area member) and construction of border fences or transit zones. The latter action has led to externalization of asylum procedures and push-backs that violate international law and EU directives and regulations (especially non-refoulement principles)—the most notorious example being Hungary’s transit zones. The Polish authorities have also failed to abide by their legal obligations. Actions undertaken by EU organs, together with referrals to the EU Justice Tribunal, have not led to any significant modifications of these policies.
Forced migration has widely been perceived not only as a humanitarian issue but as a multifaceted challenge, with its political and security impact emphasized in domestic debates. This trend is not only characteristic of the European Union (suffice to mention Australia or the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency) and it imperils the stability and coherence of the international refugee protection regime. What is clear, however, is that none of these cases amounts to a crisis” or “invasion” (as President Trump has been calling the Central American migrants approaching the US-Mexico border) in terms of numbers. It is rather a “crisis” of the system, as in the case of CEAS, or even the whole refugee protection regime with respect to non-refoulement. It is also a “crisis” for the liberal values and solidarity on which Western democracies have been based, exacerbated by propaganda that targets those individuals who feel they have something to lose if those in need of protection are let in.
Forced migration pressures are likely to continue to multiply throughout the developed world, not only caused by conflict and human rights violations but also by displacement resulting from climate change. While the EU migration “crisis” can seem far away, these issues are also of clear significance for the Pacific region, including New Zealand. Given these challenges across regions, international cooperation on forced migration issues is more imperative than ever.
Dr Dorota Heidrich is Lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Warsaw, Poland. Her visit to Victoria University of Wellington was supported by the Centre for Strategic Studies, the European Union Centres Network of New Zealand, and the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.
Image credit: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)