In 2015 and 2016, more than 1 million refugees made their way to the European Union, the largest number of them originating from Syria. Since that time, refugee arrivals have continued, although at a much slower pace and involving people from a wider range of countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The EU’s response to these developments has had five main characteristics.
First, a serious lack of preparedness and long-term planning. Despite the massive material and intelligence resources at its disposal, the EU was caught completely unaware by the mass influx of refugees five years ago and has been playing catch-up ever since. While the emergency is now well and truly over, EU member states continue to talk as if still in the grip of an unmanageable “refugee crisis.”
Second, the EU’s refugee policy has become progressively based on a strategy known as “externalization,” whereby responsibility for migration control is shifted to unstable states outside Europe. This has been epitomized by the deals that the EU has done with countries such as Libya, Niger, Sudan, and Turkey, all of which have agreed to halt the onward movement of refugees in exchange for aid and other rewards, including support to the security services.
Third, asylum has become increasingly criminalized, as demonstrated by the growing number of EU citizens and civil society groups that have been prosecuted for their roles in aiding refugees. At the same time, some frontline member states have engaged in a systematic attempt to delegitimize the NGO search-and-rescue organizations operating in the Mediterranean and to obstruct their life-saving activities.
The fourth characteristic of EU countries’ recent policies has been a readiness to inflict or be complicit in a range of abuses that challenge the principles of both human rights and international refugee law. This can be seen in the violence perpetrated against asylum seekers by the military and militia groups in Croatia and Hungary, the terrible conditions found in Greek refugee camps such as Moria on the island of Lesvos, and, most egregiously of all, EU support to the Libyan Coastguard that enables it to intercept refugees at sea and to return them to abusive detention centers on land.
Fifth and finally, the past five years have witnessed a serious absence of solidarity within the EU. Frontline states such as Greece and Italy have been left to bear a disproportionate share of the responsibility for new refugee arrivals. Efforts to relocate asylum seekers and resettle refugees throughout the EU have had disappointing results. And countries in the eastern part of the EU have consistently fought against the European Commission in its efforts to forge a more cooperative and coordinated approach to the refugee issue.
The most recent attempt to formulate such an approach is to be found in the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, which the Commission proposed in September 2020.
It would be wrong to entirely dismiss the Pact, as it contains some positive elements. These include, for example, a commitment to establish legal pathways to asylum in Europe for people who are in need of protection, and EU support for member states that wish to establish community-sponsored refugee resettlement programs.
In other respects, however, the Pact has a number of important, serious flaws. It has already been questioned by those countries that are least willing to admit refugees and continue to resist the role of Brussels in this policy domain. The Pact also makes hardly any reference to the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration—a strange omission given the enormous amount of time and effort that the UN has devoted to those initiatives, both of which were triggered by the European emergency of 2015-16.
At an operational level, the Pact endorses and reinforces the EU’s externalization agenda and envisages a much more aggressive role for Frontex, the EU’s border control agency. At the same time, it empowers member states to refuse entry to asylum seekers on the basis of very vague criteria. As a result, individuals may be more vulnerable to human smugglers and traffickers. There is also a strong likelihood that new refugee camps will spring up on the fringes of Europe, with their residents living in substandard conditions.
Finally, the Pact places enormous emphasis on the involuntary return of asylum seekers to their countries of origin. It even envisages that a hardline state such as Hungary could contribute to the implementation of the Pact by organizing and funding such deportations. This constitutes an extremely dangerous new twist on the notions of solidarity and responsibility sharing, which form the basis of the international refugee regime.
If the proposed Pact is not fit for purpose, then what might a more constructive EU refugee policy look like?
It would in the first instance focus on the restoration of both EU and NGO search-and-rescue efforts in the Mediterranean and establish more predictable disembarkation and refugee distribution mechanisms. It would also mean the withdrawal of EU support for the Libyan Coastguard, the closure of that country’s detention centers, and a substantial improvement of the living conditions experienced by refugees in Europe’s frontline states—changes that should take place with or without a Pact.
Indeed, the EU should redeploy the massive amount of resources that it currently devotes to the externalization process, so as to strengthen the protection capacity of asylum and transit countries on the periphery of Europe. A progressive approach on the part of the EU would involve the establishment of not only faster but also fair asylum procedures, with appropriate long-term solutions being found for new arrivals, whether or not they qualify for refugee status.
These changes would help to ensure that those searching for safety have timely and adequate opportunities to access their most basic rights.
Jeff Crisp was formerly Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy with Refugees International, and Head of Policy Development and Evaluation at UNHCR.