Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugee Protection in Europe: Time for a Major Overhaul?

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugee Protection in Europe: Time for a Major Overhaul?

Article excerpt

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, and smaller numbers of economic migrants, are arriving on the shores of south and southeastern Europe. Most of those arriving in Greece and Italy have no interest in staying in either of these two countries. Given the situation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and the lack of prospects for many refugees in countries of first asylum, Europe must expect much larger refugee flows. Can Europe continue for much longer with its 'business as usual' approach?

Here are a few myths that clog our understanding of the situation:

'Protection-sensitive border control is possible': The external borders of the European Union (EU), especially the sea borders, cannot be controlled in a legal and protection-sensitive way. The only means to control a sea border in practice is by extensive monitoring, rapid interception of boats suspected of carrying 'human cargo', and turning, pushing or towing them back to where one thinks they came from. However, such practices - especially towards countries not considered 'safe third countries' - are illegal, either according to the EU's body of law in relation to asylum or because these countries themselves are refugee-producing countries, and the practices may amount to refoulement or arbitrary return. These practices are also very dangerous for the lives of those being intercepted. Unfortunately, however, advocates and states alike prefer to maintain the narrative that it is possible to conduct protection-sensitive border control.

'Individual refugee status determination in EU law is the responsibility of Member States and is feasible (if states dedicate sufficient resources to it) irrespective of the number of asylum seekers': Under the recast directives on asylum procedures and qualification, refugee status determination has become a very complex and expensive endeavour, because it provides for no alternative to an individual approach. It requires each asylum seeker to be registered and interviewed, and individual decisions to be taken, accompanied by many safeguards, possibilities for appeals and re-examination, different procedures for different types of cases mostly geared towards minimising abuse of the asylum system, and so forth.

Quality requirements mean that caseworkers can reasonably be expected to issue no more than a few dozen decisions a month. In addition, the individual concerned is required actually to 'apply' for asylum in order to be registered and considered as an asylum seeker, and in such a case formal registration must take place more or less immediately. On top of all this, backlogs are to be avoided at all costs. In a situation, however, where thousands of people arrive every day in a country, most of them from major refugee-producing countries like Syria, these requirements are simply impossible to meet.

For instance, Greece's Asylum Service can currently process at most 1,500 applications a month if it wishes to respect all these requirements - which is less than half of the average daily inflow of refugees on the Greek islands at the time of writing this article. Even financially powerful countries are struggling to process over a few thousand asylum applications a day.

'The Dublin system is a basic pillar of the EU law on asylum, to be defended at all costs': According to the Dublin III Regulation, the most important criteria for the allocation of the responsibility to examine an asylum claim are the country where asylum was first sought and the country where the asylum seeker first set foot in the EU. Despite the abundant evidence that its precursor, the Dublin II Regulation, was not working well, the Dublin III Regulation maintained these basic premises, although it did introduce certain improvements by making family reunification easier.

A quick reality check, however, shows that none of the countries at the external borders of the EU could possibly process all the asylum claims each is supposedly responsible for according to the Dublin system. …

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