19 January 2016

Europe needs to wake up on migration

By Balázs Orbán

We Europeans are responsible for the current stage of the migration crisis. Not only do our external communication and legal system attempt to mitigate the crisis, but they actually serve as catalysts intensifying the migration process. If we do not take immediate action, the current crisis will not only threaten the EU as an area without internal borders, but it will also threaten most of our commonly shared values of us. It follows from this we have to stop the current influx.

In the midst of the migration crisis everyone is indulging in mutual recrimination, while at the same time failing to see that the processes involved are generated by ourselves as Europeans and our legal system. Until we enact change, we have no chance of resolving the crisis and reducing the wave of immigration pouring across the continent. In addition, if we remain passive the immigration flow will also threaten further EU values.  It is now threatening the right of free movement within the EU. In the same way, it will undermine for example EU citizens’ right to free access to paid employment anywhere in the EU, which is one of the greatest achievements of the EU.

An outdated international refugee system

The story begins in 1951, when the UN General Assembly established the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. At the time it was estimated that there were fewer than two million refugees worldwide, with western countries expecting a few hundred thousand people. Currently the number of refugees worldwide is estimated at over sixty million.

The Geneva Convention and the international asylum regime contained the following conditions: a refugee was defined as an individual who had to leave their country of origin owing to 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 (the principle of non-refoulement).

It is clear that this system was established to regulate the reception of asylum seekers by neighboring countries, as in 1956 with Hungarians fleeing to Austria from the communist regime, and now with Syrians entering Turkey. (Interestingly, Turkey does not directly recognize these people as refugees, but only indirectly through the UNHCR, in order to avoid having to fulfill all its obligations under the Geneva Convention.)

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 the figures – intentionally not those from the recent past – we see the following examples: the average acceptance rate for asylum requests in Canada in the mid-1990s was 70%, while in Finland it was 0.2%; in 1996 Canada granted asylum to 81% of Somali and 82% of Sri Lankan applicants, while for the UK for these two countries of origin the rates were 0.4% and 0.2% respectively.

Despite universal rules, whatever figures we look at, we see that the acceptance rate is more closely related to factors other than the provision of humanitarian aid. These include: the migration policy of the receiving country; the general economic situation; and the cultural, historical and political relations between the country of origin and the receiving country.

We can conclude that, although granting asylum is regarded as an act of generosity or humanitarian obligation on the part of the receiving country, such decisions are determined by current economic and political interests. In addition the humanitarian needs of those who cannot or do not want to migrate are completely ignored.  This system does not provide for any kind of burden-sharing among EU Member States, and cannot prevent political, social and economic tensions occurring in host countries.

The influx-galvanizing nature of the legal system

In fact the system of rules established in 1951 is rather unjust, as it provides no alternative to people who need humanitarian assistance rather than asylum, who see their situation in their home country or the first safe country they enter as hopeless, and who seek a better life. 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). If these people expect help from Europe or consider their situation so hopeless that they intend to start a new life in the West, there is only one thing they can do: apply for asylum. We force them into this action with our set of rules. When one has nowhere else to turn, it seems rational to use entry routes other than the legal ones.

It is almost impossible for these people to enter the territory of the EU in a legal manner. 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 have almost no chance of doing so legally.

If one of those now arriving in Europe wishes to start a new life, their only chance of doing so is as a refugee.  Our international refugee system clearly states that someone is only entitled to refugee status in a certain country if first of all he or she enters the country and secondly applies for asylum. Only those participating in the UN’s so-called relocation programs are exempt from the requirement of having to enter the receiving country, but such people represent only around 1% of all asylum applications.

We can conclude that 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).

These people therefore want to get to Germany and be granted international asylum without the legal pressure associated with refugee status in a single country. On top of that if the asylum application turns out to be rejected there are two possible outcomes, both of which have serious effects on the migrant and the receiving country alike. Namely after this demanding journey the migrant is sent back to the undesired home country or disappears from the authorities and wants to remain unnoticed as long as possible. Guaranteed negative outcomes on a quasi illegal green card lottery.

Political consequences of the massive influx

The large numbers of people arriving serve to undermine the right of free movement within the EU. From one moment to the next we are seeing the collapse of the concept of a Europe without internal borders. Quite understandably, asylum applicants are not supposed to move freely across internal borders while their applications are being processed, and to prevent this happening internal Member States have restored controls (even if only on a temporary basis) on their borders with peripheral states.

The absence of internal border controls in the EU’s Schengen Area is not the only core value under serious threat from the recent migration flow, however. I think it reasonable to assume that 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.

Firstly, the integration into the labor market of those arriving in the current flow would definitely affect opportunities for guest workers from EU states. Secondly, in the political upheaval caused by immigration, all the countries concerned will use all means at their disposal to protect their labor markets.

At times this will culminate in political competition between the countries concerned. The United Kingdom, 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. Debate there on EU membership will definitely be dominated by the issue of immigration and legislation on asylum. British political debate might easily change direction and not only focus on migration from outside the EU but also migration within the EU. Proposals related to renegotiation of Britain’s position within the EU will affect the situation of both internal and external migration.

These are only two negative developments in a potentially wider process of erosion of values.  If we do not make any changes to the current situation, several EU achievements will be challenged or transformed due to the domino effect (we increasingly hear threats that funding within cohesion policy could be limited to discipline “renitent” Central and Eastern European countries).  We do not have to agree on whether or not to support massive migration from outside the continent, but we do have to agree on effective public policy tools, otherwise our community will be disrupted.

How else?

It does not matter which side we take in the issue of immigration. The fundamental issues, explained earlier, are the same irrespective of the measures the EU Member States decide to take. But all the tools they will use need to serve the goal of reducing the flow of migrants, otherwise there is no chance of resolving the situation in a comprehensive matter.

Establishing hotspots outside the EU, transit zones and fences can all work, since all these measures serve to enable countries to freely decide whom to let across their borders. In addition, humanitarian aid should be funded in countries of origin and first countries of entry. The new system can only be effective if combined with border protection. It should 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. All other considerations are secondary.

Balázs Orbán is the Director of Research at the Századvég Foundation in Hungary