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Toward a more reasonable European asylum system

National governments must cede some control over immigration to EU-level institutions if migrants are ever to be received and dealt with humanely.

Anna Terrón Cusí explains the need for an EU-level system for assessing and distributing asylum seekers. Duration: 1:37

Cameron Thibos: What are the main political challenges to dealing with the migration challenge productively?

Anna Terrón Cusí: To draw on what I was saying this morning in the plenary session, this is a European crisis. It is not a refugee crisis. It is not the first time we have witnessed a situation like this. We saw this in the Balkans, 20 years ago. So, I would say, in order to tackle this situation – which, again, I don’t call a refugee crisis – we need a common approach at the EU level. We need resources, and we need to engage everybody in providing the solution: form society, from cities, from governments.

If we do this in the right way, this should not be overwhelming. It is a big number, it’s horrible because people are fleeing a conflict, it’s challenging, but it’s not a huge number. It can be done. For sure, it cannot be done if all governments are dominated by a very xenophobic and populist narrative, in which they feel in danger because of the situation and would rather hide behind the rhetoric than look it in the face.

Cameron: Immigration policy is one of the most coveted aspects of national sovereignty. So how do you see it shifting towards a common European strategy?

Anna: Interestingly, people are calling on the European Union to come up with a solution, while at the same time member states are preventing any EU institution from having any real competences in this regard or a real say on that.

How to move on? We could do something vey easy: fulfil the treaties.

If you look at the referendum in the United Kingdom, you see a great example of this. Today, many serious people are saying that the lack of belief that people have in the EU stems mainly from their fears of migration. This is really crazy, because first of all, European institutions have no competences when it comes to migration. Secondly, the United Kingdom is not in Schengen, so from this point of view, let’s say, it has among the ‘better protected’ borders in Europe.

Yet at the same time, this causal relationship prevails between migration and anti-European feeling. I do believe that both feelings are one and the same thing: they are related. But both anti-migrant and anti-Europe feelings are symptoms of a very worrying phenomenon, which is blaming the other for our problems, and it doesn’t matter whether this ‘other’ is migrants, or Europe, or Europeans. We have to put all of this behind us, because otherwise this very nationalistic and very xenophobic approach will really damage the European Union.

So how to move on? We could do something vey easy: fulfil the treaties. At the end of the day, it doesn't go too far, but there you can find the provisions to move on – showing more solidarity among member states, creating temporary areas of protection, and going deeper in some areas for what should be a real European asylum system. Everything is contained in the treaties and we can go forward at least that far.

What would this mean from my point of view? I think we should try to determine at the EU level whether a person deserves asylum because they fulfil the criteria. This could be easily done at the European level, and then we could decide where this particular person should find shelter, and who effectively is best going to protect that person. That could be done in the existing framework of EU legislation, but it requires the political will. By doing that, we could move fairly seamlessly into an area of mutual solidarity. But certainly that involves facing up to the situation, and to work with reality rather than with symbols or with assumptions about what the people require.

Almost no political leader has been willing to say, ‘this is not true!’

It has not been proven that people in Europe feel themselves to be threatened by refugees. But the information they get every single day evokes confusion, mess, scarce resources, and a xenophobic narrative. At this moment in time almost – and I underline almost – no government and no political leader has been willing to go on the record and say, “this is not true! Let us tell the truth, and let us manage the situation.”

Why is this? It looks as if the xenophobic narrative is so much more easily understood by populations than any explanation of real cause and effect, that political leaders at this moment in time think they have to follow this path. I think that is committing suicide. Honestly, because there is no end to this, and the ‘problem’ is not going to go away: the mobility is there, the obligation to give shelter is there, migration is there, diversity is there, and all of them will be there from now to many many years in the future.

Cameron: The current Dublin system, what ever it was meant to be, seems to be a system for keeping people on the southern rim legally. This is the head-on conflict with European solidarity. Northern and western Europe have been able to insulate themselves, while creating anger and expense and huge costs for the southern rim. Does this idea of first arrival have to be scrapped?

Anna: That’s a very southern way of looking at things – I’m from Barcelona and can share it – but this is not a problem of the north against the south. In this debate, both sides have their arguments. But from my point of view, no one on any side is going in the right direction!

Germany's far-right party Alternative für Deutschland demonstrates in 2015. James Rea/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

The arguments rage between those who suffer great pressure at the border, and those with a very robust asylum system which attracts more people. So for many years, the positions of the southern and the northern states were in deadlock in this very stupid situation.

We have a set of three directives that regard asylum procedures, which should have guided us to a more balanced situation. But if you analyse member state situations one by one, you see that nothing has changed. In Spain, before the ‘crisis’, the number of accepted claims using the same directive as the others was around 2% – yes, not 20%, 2% – while in Germany or in Sweden for the same nationalities, you had 50% accepted. And that was based on the same directive, equal qualifications and equal procedures – OK?!

If you look at the systems, you have also huge disparities. From full attention, or at least inclusion in a very strong reception system, to six-month care and ‘more-and-less welcome’ inside a ‘try to do something with these people’ system. Again this was on the basis of the same directive for minimum standards for welcoming and aiding asylum seekers. My point is – let’s not do this any more. It’s crazy!

There is no way to stop a human being from trying to reunite with his or her family, so we might want to take this into consideration.

At the end of the day, what Dublin did was to create a lot of incentives for both southern countries under big pressure and asylum seekers not to comply with it. The result is that people do not want to be registered with Eurodac. They try to move on and to arrive where they honestly think there will be better prospects for them in life.

We should block all of these holes in the system. We need a different system and Dublin should be radically rethought. My point is that you can have an EU system for asylum seekers to be accepted or not, and a separate system that attends to their placement or relocation. For me, that second system must take into consideration the capacities of every country, and also the circumstances of the people themselves.

They’re human beings, after all. There is no way to stop a human being from trying to reunite with his or her family, for example. It may be more sensible, therefore, to take this into consideration at the very beginning rather than the end of this crazy process, after having moved him or her all over Europe.

There are other methods of solidarity. In Italy they have proposed these Eurobonds on refugees. You can use the EU budget – not to be too provocative – to really help member states to deal with this. The key point is that we should move on, and we should renew the so-called common European asylum system. So-called because, as it now stands, it is really the sum of 28 – 27 now – different systems. These do not open the gates of the European Union as a shelter for refugees, but only the gates of one single country while closing the gates of all the others. That’s the idea behind Dublin. And we have to look at the challenge in an opposite way to this – or else it will never work!

Duration: 2:10

Cameron: Will giving city authorities more control over directly funding the process and creating networks of cities part of the solution?

Anna: I think this is a multilevel and cross-cutting issue. If you really want to welcome people and help them to be reasonably integrated within our countries, that means all of us working for those objectives. Cities are key! Cities are the territories, the locations, where you can work effectively with refugees. People in cities, as we have seen on many occasions, are more open to that. They can work as a positive element to break down this xenophobic narrative that is so dominated by fear and the hate speech. Cities must play a role, because refugees always arrive somewhere. Local authorities are the first port of call – they receive them, they know what they need, and how those needs can be better provided. So it makes a lot of sense to ensure that local authorities have the financial resources they need if we’re to have and effective welcome systems.

Cameron: The common asylum policy it seems is not going to be reformed very soon, but some reforms were announced yesterday (13 July) and they seem to be taking the EU-Turkey deal as a template for the future. What is your feeling about that?

Anna: Obviously the relationship with third countries is a key issue that needs to be tackled alongside all of this. The fact that the vast majority of people who are forced to move continue to live in countries as near to the conflict area as possible demonstrates, amongst other things, that their aim is to go back home. It is when they lose all hope that this might be possible that they flee somewhere else in order to find shelter. So it is very important to work with those countries in order to ensure that real assistance is provided to those people.

But is this a good or a bad thing? It depends on how you do it. It is good to help the situation in our neighbour countries, but that should be very far removed from a situation where you also say, ‘let’s keep them out, let’s close our borders and then we will be able to forget all about it’. That cannot be the driving motivation behind it, because that is only going to make things more complicated, and then we will be faced with the whole complex business of human trafficking. But I am not against the idea of working with third countries. I think it should be done, but in compliance with international legislation, in compliance with EU legislation and taking into consideration development and assistance drivers.

Cameron: You say a common European asylum policy could decide whether someone attains refugee or asylum status or not, and then allocate them appropriately. But taking into account what we see today, not just in terms of wars, but economic crisis and climate change and so on, do you think we should also be rethinking what a refugee is, and not just falling back on a definition arising out of World War ii?

Anna: In an ideal world, yes. Indeed, we have to rethink what a refugee is, we have to rethink on migration, we have to rethink on mobility, we have to rethink on diversity – because those areas are the direct human consequences of globalisation. Of course economics is human too. But human mobility is part of globalisation, and we cannot think up a world where every single thing is mobile but people!

Goods are moving around, and we are pushing for that to happen. Capital is certainly moving around. People are moving around too. Moving everything except people is simply not possible. So in an ideal world we have to rethink all of this. But if you ask me, do we have to discuss the Geneva Convention today? I would say, please don’t do it.

Please don’t do it, because the possibility of getting consensus today on how best to revise the Geneva Convention is zero. It will just be a more difficult situation. So what we have to do now is to tackle this EU crisis, to try to find a way out of the momentum behind this crisis, and to reform the European asylum system in a way that helps us to avoid a third crisis. The first crisis we suffered was the Balkans, and we learned lessons from that. We are in the middle of the second crisis, and we have to try and avoid a third one!

About the authors

Anna Terrón Cusí is Chair of the Advisory Board of the UNU Institute on Globalisation, Culture and Mobility. She has spent more than twenty years in politics. She is a former member of the European Parliament as well as the former secretary of state for migration in Spain. She is currently the president of an independent strategising body which is a ‘think and do’ on migration and the EU.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery and Mediterranean Journeys in Hope. He is a former research associate at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and holds a D.Phil from the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. 

Introducing Cities of Welcome, Cities of Transit
Welcoming refugees despite the state
BUE RÜBNER HANSEN
Barcelona: city of refuge
IGNASI CALBÓ and RAMÓN SANAHUJA
Toward a more reasonable European asylum system
ANNA TERRÓN CUSÍ
When refugees appear, we take them to the art museum
SUSANNE ASCHE
The myths of migration PATRICK TARAN
VIDEO: How Gdańsk, Poland became a city open to migration and diversity
THOMAS JÉZÉQUEL
VIDEO: The impact of migration on development
CECILE RIALLANT
VIDEO: Why did the Balkan route close for refugees?
VIDEO: Anti-radicalisation, social movements, and imagining alternatives
So, is it a refugee crisis?
ROCIO CIFUENTES
VIDEO: More than a refuge, a welcome
European refugees and Twitter
AURORA LABIO and ROMÁN MARTÍN and FRANCISCO NÚÑEZ
The long year of migration and the Balkan corridor
MOVING EUROPE
VIDEO: What does it take to achieve solidarity?
Solidarity in European asylum policies: response to a problem or part of it?
ELENI KARAGEORGIOU
VIDEO: Is returning refugees and migrants counterproductive?
Solidarity beyond the state: towards a model of solidarity centred on the refugee
VALSAMIS MITSILEGAS
Unsafe Turkey, unsafe Europe
SERGIO CARRERA and AIKATERINI DRAKOPOLOU
VIDEO: How does Europe use databases to control refugees?
NIOVI VAVOULA
Spaces of transit, migration management and migrant agency
LEONIE ANSEMS DE VRIES
VIDEO: What are refugee hotspots?
Solidarity is a political struggle: free and forced mobility between Italy and France
ANNALISA LOLLO
VIDEO: The closure of the No Border camp
Refugees, displacement, and the European ‘politics of exhaustion’
LEONIE ANSEMS DE VRIES and MARTA WELANDER

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