Analysis 2016/2: Is the Migration Crisis the End of the European Union as we know it?

January 21, 2016

Analysis 2016/2: Is the Migration Crisis the End of the European Union as we know it?

Analysis 2016/2: Is the Migration Crisis the End of the European Union as we know it?

Is the Migration Crisis the End of the European Union as we know it?

The crush of migrants flooding Europe poses both a security and political threat to the Continent in many ways as serious as that of Russian military aggression. As Balázs Orbán, Director of Research for the Századvég Foundation, a Hungarian think tank, argues the very survival of the European Union is at stake. The EU urgently needs to reform its policies regarding immigration and border controls in order to both manage the ongoing crisis and preserve a unified Europe. The European Union (EU) is the world’s greatest accomplishment of international cooperation. Representing more than 500 million people across 28 nation states, it has provided freedoms and opportunity to citizens like no other institution in history. But the current migrant crisis is threatening to undue half a century of progress. If left unchecked, it may undermine the basic tenets of the EU and its underlying legal framework. How did we get here? What can be done?

An outdated international refugee system

In 1951, the UN General Assembly established the Geneva Convention concerning the Status of Refugees. At the time it was estimated that there were fewer than two million refugees worldwide. Western countries were expecting (and willing) to accept a few hundred thousand people as the initial recipients. Now the number of refugees worldwide is estimated at more than sixty million. The Geneva Convention defined a refugee as an individual who had to leave their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of persecution. A refugee was not to be penalized for crossing a border illegally; a receiving country was obliged to grant asylum and humanitarian assistance to such persons; and they could not be returned or deported to their country of origin. It is clear that this system was established to regulate the reception of asylum seekers by neighboring countries, exemplified at the time by Hungarians fleeing to Austria from the communist regime in 1956, and now epitomized by Syrians escaping to Turkey.

Humanitarian obligation vs economic interest

Since 1951, the definition of a refugee in the Geneva Convention has been broadly interpreted in some situations and narrowly interpreted in others. Broader interpretation has occurred, however, only among those receiving countries in which the phenomenon of migration itself has been considered fundamentally desirable. If we look at historical figures we see the following examples: the average acceptance rate for asylum requests in Canada in the mid-1990s was 70 percent, while in Finland it was 0.2 percent; in 1996 Canada granted asylum to 81 percent of Somali and 82 percent of Sri Lankan applicants, while in the UK acceptance rates for the same countries were 0.4 percent and 0.2 percent respectively. Despite the seemingly clear obligations of the Geneva Convention, acceptance rates are dictated by internal politics – immigration policies, economic outlook, and relations with the country of origin – rather than the unconditional provision of humanitarian aid.  Member states that avoid taking on a fair share of refugees face no punishment. The system and legislation do not provide for any kind of burden-sharing among EU states, leading to political, social, and economic tensions in host countries that honor their obligations.

The influx galvanizing nature of the legal system

The system put in place under the Geneva Convention in 1951 is also rather shortsighted. It provides no alternative for people who need humanitarian assistance rather than simply asylum – those who see their situation in their home country or entry country as equally hopeless. There is no international obligation for third countries to help refugees in Turkey, for instance, or to receive people directly through relocation programs (almost thirty countries, including Hungary, participate in such programs on their own volition). If these people expect help from Europe or consider their situation so hopeless that they intend to start a new life in a Western country other than the one they initially entered, there is only one thing they can do: apply for asylum. But it is almost impossible for many to legally apply for asylum. To do so they are required to have visas, to specify the purpose of their stay, and to prove that their entry satisfies the conditions of the so-called “harmonized” European standards on entry and residence for third-country nationals. In practice those currently arriving to Europe on foot after fleeing a war zone have little chance. The international refugee system clearly states that someone is only entitled to refugee status in a certain country if he or she enters the country and secondly applies for asylum. But what if, because of family ties, language barriers or cultural compatibility, a migrant wishes to settle in a state other than their point of entry? In countries like the U.S. or Australia, this is managed by requiring external application for humanitarian or refugee visas. But, due to its legal shortcomings, Europe cannot offer the same solution. Take Germany – a common destination – for example. Those who want to start a new life in Germany can only do so as refugees by crossing the continent (on foot in most cases), risking their lives, crossing a number of countries, and avoiding all cooperation with authorities in EU member states en route (since cooperation would mean applying for refugee status in such an EU Member State, thus reducing their chances of obtaining refugee status in their chosen country of destination). On top of that, if the asylum application is rejected, which without proper paperwork, it likely will be, there are two possible disquieting outcomes.  Either migrants are forced to return to their home country or they flee authorities, disrupting the receiving country’s system of law enforcement.

Political consequences of the massive influx

The concept of European borders – long established by the Schengen agreement – is collapsing. Quite understandably, asylum applicants are not supposed to move freely across internal borders while their applications are being processed. To prevent this from happening, internal member states have restored controls (even if only on a temporary basis) on their borders with peripheral states, effectively rolling back a central feature of the EU: free passage among member states. The return of internal border controls in the EU is not the only core value under serious threat from the recent migration flow, however. The next right to be curtailed in light of migration flows could be free access to paid employment – one of the four fundamental EU freedoms.  The integration of migrants into the labor market will disrupt opportunities for guest workers from EU states. Moreover, the political upheaval caused by immigration means that countries are likely to turn protectionist to defend their labor markets. The UK, for example, where a referendum on withdrawal from the EU will be held in 2016 or 2017, will certainly become a hub of such tensions. British political debate may soon extend beyond stemming foreign immigration to preventing internal EU migration.

What can be done?

The answer is two-fold. First, the current wave of immigration must be slowed and regulated. Europe has become overloaded.  Those seeking to enter its territory must be carefully screened.  Establishing transit zones, fences, and hotspots outside the EU could all prove to be effective physical responses to this crisis. It should also be made clear that those who choose illegal entry points in preference to available legal ones will not have the chance to start a new life in Europe. Secondly, the foundations of the EU’s immigration approach must be amended.  We must act jointly on border protection so that Europe’s sovereignty can be restored first, and then allow nation-based approaches to prevail in key policies such as asylum, where national differences are numerous. All other considerations in mitigating Europe’s migration crisis are secondary. This should not be difficult, but it is not easy to see the wood for the trees.

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