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Griechenland Migranten versuchen von Patras weiter nach Europa zu kommen
Image: Reuters/Y. Behrakis

A long row to hoe

Christoph Hasselbach / js
May 13, 2015

The European Commission has proposed a quota system regulating the distribution of refugees - and has run into tough resistance. But such a system must be implemented, writes Christoph Hasselbach.


The rejection came before the EU Commission even presented its proposal. The thought that they would eventually have to take in more refugees immediately threw a whole row of countries into a panic, even though it is clear that the so-called Dublin System in use right now is broken.

In that system, a refugee has to apply for asylum in the country where he or she first steps onto EU soil. Due to the geography of Mediterranean refugee routes, that generally means Greece, Italy and Malta.

So, in theory, a few countries in the south of Europe have to take care of almost all of the asylum applications in the EU. Rightly, they have tried to defend themselves against this burden, while northern countries have seen no need to change existing rules.

Bad treatment as a deterrent

With ever more refugees arriving, some of the most acutely affected countries eventually began to subvert the Dublin system. Italy intentionally sent refugees north - where most of them wanted to go anyway. Greece and Bulgaria deliberately treated asylum seekers so badly at their reception centers that help organizations strongly advised authorities against sending back refugees who were caught heading north.

Christoph Hasselbach
DW's Christoph HasselbachImage: DW/M.Müller

In doing so, these countries were in a sense "rewarded" for their bad behavior by a decrease in applications. At that point, the Commission should have been responsible for adherence to the agreed standards. Great Britain and Ireland, on the other hand, remain outside of Schengen, and thanks to the Channel have yet another barrier with which to shield themselves from refugees.

The Czech Republic has taken in 70 Syrians

That is why today, some one dozen EU countries take in about three quarters of all refugees. In absolute numbers, Germany is number one; proportional to the population Sweden is. Pressure to distribute refugees more fairly is therefore growing. The European Commission's idea to do this based on population, economic power and unemployment rates of the individual countries is a reasonable approach to the problem.

But nothing will come of the plan any time soon. Great Britain, Ireland and Denmark have already noted their skepticism, as well as the three Baltic states, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Several of their reasons are rather informative. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka stated that, "Individual governments are the best judge of what they can each do within the common framework of solidarity." He said that his country has already taken in 70 Syrian refugees. Only 70? Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the whole plan "crazy," laconically adding that his country doesn't want a multi-cultural society. Period. It's that simple as far as he is concerned.

Leave us alone

Interestingly, every government seems to agree that the EU has to do more to defend against smugglers, and to keep people from drowning. In truth, however, they are talking more about isolation than about saving lives. At least British Home Secretary Theresa May was honest when she talked about the need for the EU to send boats full of refugees on the Mediterranean back to Africa - a European version of the Australian solution, which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot claims has "saved" many lives, and above all kept many asylum seekers from reaching Australia's shores. But Europe cannot physically isolate itself as easily as Australia, and such policies would be impossible to implement politically.

The numbers of those seeking asylum are likely to climb - and the EU will obviously not be able to take them all in. The EU will have to react with a mix of repressive and developmental, as well as humanitarian policies. But no matter how this is done, the problem of distribution remains. Just as geography alone cannot dictate how many people a country can take in, neither can European refugee policy be based on the generosity of a small number of its individual member states.

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