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Bis zu 700 tote Flüchtlinge bei Schiffsunglücken im Mittelmeer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ettore Ferrari

A humane refugee policy

Bernd Riegert / ws
December 24, 2014

2014 saw a sharp increase in the number of refugees and this trend is expected to continue in 2015. Europe must not be a fortress. By the same token, it cannot completely open up its borders, argues Bernd Riegert.

https://p.dw.com/p/1E9pB

In 2014, the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe reached its highest level since 1945. Hundreds of thousands are fleeing from crisis areas in Syria, Eritrea, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thousands of people die in the course of their attempt to cross the Mediterranean or EU land borders. Those not having the good fortune of being recognized as "quota" refugees - who are very few in number - have to rely on seeking asylum. This can be done only on EU soil. So from a legal point of view, someone seeking protection is required to immigrate illegally, in order to have their right to asylum reviewed officially. That is the absurd situation refugees are facing.

All too often, illegal entries are organized by human trafficking networks - a crime that yields billions of euros in profits for criminals who dispatch northbound boats from Libya across the Mediterranean. All in all, an indefensible situation - and not just since 2014. EU interior ministers have long since recognized that asylum and refugee policies have to change. The Mediterranean should not be allowed to become a vast graveyard, the Pope recently advised the European Parliament. He is right, of course - but how, exactly, can the EU change the current situation?

Dismantle the "fortress"?

Refugee organizations are calling for the dismantling of what they call the "fortress Europe" and urge that the EU completely opens up to immigration. This is understandable from a human point of view, but on a political level, it cannot be implemented. European countries are simply not prepared to receive what would likely be millions of people each year and integrate them at any cost.

Even now, there is opposition to the number of asylum seekers, perceived as too high, in many EU member states. In some places, xenophobic groups have become alarmingly popular. Here, it hardly helps pointing out that Europe, compared to the neighboring countries of the current hotspot Syria, receives very few refugees. In Lebanon, for instance, one fourth of the entire population is believed to be made up of refugees. If that were the case in Europe, there would be 125 million refugees here; there are, however, only 500,000. Of course juggling with these figures makes no sense. The political will to accept increasing numbers of immigrants - or even merely keep them at the current rate - is simply not there.

The EU has recognized that there has to be more legal immigration into Europe in order to rescue refugees from the claws of human traffickers and spare them from life-threatening journeys. If there were more legal ways, though, it would be realistic to expect that more people from the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Ukraine and Serbia would try to enter the EU. Yet, Europeans do not want the total number of those entering either legally or illegally to exceed the current level. How this quandary can be solved remains an open question which will continue to keep the EU's interior ministers occupied in 2015. In theory, they could stipulate fixed immigration rates for certain countries of origin, similar to the US approach. All others who then enter the EU would have to be categorically rejected. Would that be a fair solution?

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

Spoilt for choice: Who will be allowed to stay?

On average, only around half of asylum applicants are accepted. Acceptance rates differ widely, depending on countries of origin. Currently, almost everyone from Syria is accepted while almost all Serbs are rejected. The concept of accepting asylum applications from people before they have entered Europe sounds promising. Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere brought that idea back to the agenda. The question is, however, how those envisaged "immigration centers" could be set up in African transit countries without turning them into detention camps. Nonetheless, it would be worth giving it a shot if it means saving lives which would otherwise be lost in the Mediterranean Sea.

If there was more solidarity among EU member states, and if they simply stuck to EU law, refugees would have it better. According to the so-called Dublin Regulation, the country that a refugee first arrives in assumes responsibility for that person and is under obligation to conduct formal asylum procedures. However, Italy, Greece and Hungary, to name a few, do not comply with these regulations; European courts continue to deplore intolerable conditions in refugee camps and flawed application procedures.

In 2014, for instance, there were thousands of refugees that Italy did not bother to even register. Instead, Italy just let them go, and was glad to see them move north across the Alps. The five EU states which currently receive the most refugees, among them Germany, demand that asylum seekers be spread more evenly among the 28 member states. Those with few asylum applicants reject the idea. If asylum seekers were to be moved about, issues pertaining to criteria to determine who moves where would also have to be addressed; should asylum seekers be moved to another country against their will? And if so, would they not simply try to escape anyway?

EU must finally find solutions

These are all questions that pertain to an incredibly complex problem which the EU has to address even more urgently in the coming year. It is vital that we do not wait for recurring images of capsized refugee boats off the Italian coast to highlight this desperate situation. People continue to die on EU borders, almost on a daily basis, and official statistics only record those who are rescued, registered and put into asylum procedures. The number of unreported cases of people entering illegally and absconding immediately without ever being registered is huge - three to four times as high as the official number of refugees and asylum seekers, according to an assessment by the European Refugee Council.

After searching for a solution to asylum woes for 20 long years, the EU must finally come up with an answer in 2015. For one thing is certain: due to the expanding crises in the Middle East, Africa and perhaps even Eastern Europe, the pressure will continue to increase as more people try to escape the throes of war and conflict. And for this, Europe must prepare itself if it wants to be humane.

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