Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': the EU’s problematic relationship with migration

12 May 2020
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

How does European policy approach mobility for non-citizens?

With the initiation of the Schengen agreement in 1985, a significant filter has been built into the European Union’s approach to mobility. The dismantling of borders inside the Schengen Area and the facilitation of free movement for EU citizens stand against the tighter control of external borders and intensified controls of the mobility of migrants from outside the EU. Free mobility is a fundamental achievement that has proven vital for European societies and economies. Yet, it is an exclusive right to which refugees and other migrants from outside Europe do not have the same access. They are thus often forced to immobility, either at ‘their places’ on the outside or in the marginal places inside the EU to which they have been allocated. Movements that disregard this logic are illegalised and demonised.

The Dublin system, which determines which member state is responsible for a particular asylum seeker, is a central cornerstone of this policy. When it was first negotiated, the goal of powerful central states like Germany was to keep asylum seekers away from Western Europe, away from the core states of the European Union. They successfully managed to shift responsibility for receiving asylum seekers to the margins of Europe, where situations have now been allowed to escalate.

The current conditions we see in the Greek island hotspot of Moria on Lesbos are a result of the decisions taken back then. It is a place where there should be rapid asylum procedures, but many displaced people have been contained in this camp for two or three years. Politicians suggest that people are eventually relocated out of hotspots like Moria to central parts of Europe, but the numbers are so minimal that you can’t say the system really works.

It doesn’t even reliably work for family reunification. There are plenty of stories of Syrian fathers who have lived in Germany for years now, yet their wives and children are still in Turkey, Jordan or even on a Greek island with no way of joining them. Frequently this is by design. Germany temporarily suspended family reunification between March 2016 and August 2018 for people who were only granted subsidiary protection. For recognised refugees family reunification was much easier. Many wives and children have come to Germany over the past few years to reunite with their husbands and fathers. The situation has been very different for people with subsidiary protection. There have been many cases of people with subsidiary protection in Germany choosing to leave Europe for a precarious life in Turkey because family reunification was blocked.

Attempts to contain secondary movement within Europe – i.e. when a migrant or refugee moves between EU countries – are also an effect of the approach taken by the Dublin system. Secondary movement is demonised by European policy makers, but as a matter of fact existential threats do not simply end once someone arrives on the continent. There are very good reasons why someone would want to move on from Italy, where refugees hardly have access to social welfare, and come to Germany, where the long-term perspectives to restart a life after displacement seem much better. Yet if their fingerprints have been registered in Italy, they’ll be sent back there once they try to apply for asylum in Germany. This is then often the moment when they say, ‘If they're not going to let me apply for asylum, then I will go underground and live in an illegalised situation’, in which they are exposed to poverty, mistreatment and precarious work.

There are a lot of younger people from West Africa living working in Germany. Some have been in Europe for so long that they now also enjoy the right to free movement within Europe, but they cannot obtain residency in Germany. They frequently have to go back to Italy to renew their residence status even though they have worked for years in Germany. Most people have no idea this is happening, but attempting to control and contain secondary movements is a trend. The whole question about free movement in Europe is both cynical and ironic. Who's free movement? European citizens have the right to move, but a lot of people in Europe do not have the right to move freely.

What I also want to highlight is that displacement and migration often lead to the creation of people whose lives are no longer bound by either national or local borders. They think and act transnationally, now and in the future. Many of them embrace mobility and lead a highly flexible life across several places and countries. Others have settled at a new home – not necessarily at the places that policies foresaw for them – yet maintain multiple connections within Europe and all across the world. Policy often seems to disregard this transnational way of life and migrants’ own mobility choices, and instead tries to forcibly contain people in certain places. Immobilising migrants, however, not only severely impairs human freedoms and rights while disregarding of their suffering; it also hinders people to live in dignity and to develop their potential – for themselves and for the European society.


Who or what drives the securitisation of migration policy in Europe?

Several things are driving this trend at once. One is a certain category of politicians who know how to capitalise on a constant sense of chaos. I can’t imagine anything worse for politicians like Matteo Salvini or Viktor Orban than migration ceasing to be a problem. They need it to remain a highly salient and problematic issue in order to gain votes. What’s worse, the radicalisation of migration policies has proved to be a real slippery slope. Things that would have been unimaginable only five or ten years ago are happening now. And not just in Europe. The United States, Australia and other developed countries in the Global North are all driving the securitisation of migration by introducing increasingly restrictive measures to reduce flows.


Malta, Italy, Germany and France recently agreed to redistribute some refugees among themselves. Is this progress?

It’s a clear example of putting a plaster on a problem and ignoring whatever's going on underneath. It highlights the emergency-driven nature of Europe’s response to migration to date. The agreement, which was signed in late September last year, basically says that people will disembark in Malta and Italy and then be relocated to Germany and France (and a few other countries which later joined the scheme). Some might see that as progress. But it essentially circumvents attempts to create EU-wide solidarity by creating a small coalition of the willing, which in turn makes it easier for other countries to get away with lagging behind and not showing any solidarity at all. That’s the sort of short-sightedness that is reflected in the broader migration dynamics and the relationship between the EU and African states. It is also a view of migration from a single angle, and one that ignores the rights of migrants, and the values that should underpin all EU measures.

Solidarity in Europe has become conditional upon whatever is happening in a particular member state or at a particular point in time. The issues that informed this development is also worrying regarding people being left out at sea with disembarkation being denied because States do not want to be responsible for the asylum claims. This is one of many reasons why we should overhaul the Dublin system, which is what governs where people can apply for asylum in Europe. The Dublin system doesn't work. It results in human rights violations and is unfair to border states. However, instead of radically revising the Dublin system, we now have four countries trying to find a workaround between them. It’s solidarity a la carte. It is a short-term solution to a problem that is neither sustainable nor durable.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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