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boat with refugees
Image: picture alliance/JOKER

Failed refugee policies

Interview: Dagmar Breitenbach
June 16, 2015

European refugee policies have failed according to a book entitled "Shipwreck" just published in Germany. Julian Lehmann, one of the three authors, explains what has gone wrong.


According to the UNHCR, more than 50 million people are displaced; many millions are refugees. Comparatively few actually make their way to Europe; last year, about 276,000 tried to cross the borders irregularly - most of them by boat across the Mediterranean.

Deutsche Welle: "Shipwreck - the failure of European refugee policy" is the title of the book you wrote with Wolfgang Grenz and Stefan Kessler, it's just been published in Germany. Why did you decide to write abut a topic that's constantly in the news?

Julian Lehmann: We thought it would be a good idea to team up the knowledge we have and come up with something readable for a broad audience that combines our perspectives. I work from the perspective of a think tank and with a legal background, my colleagues are or were in advocacy organizations. The title? Literally, it's not only a shipwreck of failing policies but obviously of what we see happening every day in the Mediterranean.

What, then, is fundamentally wrong with refugee policies in Europe?

On the abstract level, there is a huge gap between the rhetoric of refugee protection and the reality of securing safe entry for asylum seekers. There is also a lack of will to treat what is a collective action problem - the only way you can deal with such a problem is collectively. So we, the EU, say we're not responsible for asylum seekers unless they're on the brink of drowning. We have also failed to develop means of sharing responsibility that are worth the name.

Julian Lehmann
Julian Lehmann of the Global Public Policy InstituteImage: Photo: WAALD

Can this shipwrecked EU 'refugee policy' boat be pulled back from the brink?

If the EU wanted to regain credibility, it would undertake steps that demonstrate its acceptance of refugee protection as a common purpose. It would mount a commonly funded, bigger search and rescue operation - that would absolutely be the very first step - it would dump those military plans against smugglers, it would agree at least on a temporary quota system to assist Italy, it would support Turkey and other countries of refuge by harboring Syrian refugees with resettlement, and it would consolidate the asylum system in the member states. We do make these calls in the book.

All of this has been said before - but why in your opinion is the EU not acting on such sound advice?

Take the Dublin system and the similar challenge in the euro zone, which is composed of fairly different members. At the time of its creation, we bent the criteria to enable some countries to enter the euro zone - we believed in the transformative economic effect of the euro. But then, some 10 years later when the crisis started, we rubbed our eyes in surprise because it hadn't happened the way we predicted. It's the same with the Common European Asylum System. The challenge is, how do we harmonize an asylum system "on the go," I mean when we have a responsibility-sharing system that is up and running and we expect countries to get better once they've joined. We know from experience in other policy fields that the EU's transformative power is biggest when it can impose conditionality before countries enter the club. The system we've created offers governments too many opportunities for a free ride: you can rely on other countries without caring yourself, and you never carry the costs. The asylum seekers carry the costs.

book cover Shipwreck
An apt title for a pressing problemImage: Knaur TB

What's the main challenge?

Implementation is the biggest challenge. We still face significant differences with respect to accommodation, health care, access to procedures - and obviously, all these become apparent when under the Dublin system we make a decision as to which member state is responsible for deciding on an asylum application.

Are refugee policies a uniquely European phenomenon?

No. Take the Rohingya minority that has fled Myanmar for years - a boat with hundreds of starving people aboard drifted in Thai waters last month. That is an epitome of just how hard it is to make governments take responsibility for refugees. And the regional countries are in denial. This is an age of collective ducking out - it's not just us. It's time to think out of the box, whether there could be something else than the current system, which clearly doesn't allocate responsibility effectively.

If you see the big picture, you can easily get frustrated because, how difficult can it be to tackle this? We're not talking about masses of people.

Julian Lehmann is a researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), a think tank based in Berlin.

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