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Asylum seekers keep out

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
March 8, 2017

The EU is turning itself into a fortress to stop any more asylum seekers from entering. One of the more unsavory consequences is Hungary’s decision to force asylum seekers into detention camps, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Border fence in Hungary
Image: Reuters/L. Balogh

A year ago, the European Union closed the Balkan route to migrants, then made a deal with Ankara to send newly arriving migrants and Syrian refugees in Greece to Turkey. The desired effect quickly became noticeable: the number of new arrivals sank drastically, putting a dampener on the illegal dealings of human traffickers.

The EU's southeastern external borders continue to be "protected," to use the terminology of several statements issued by heads of state. The goal is to stop "illegal migration." The land borders between Turkey and Greece, and between Serbia and Hungary had previously been sealed off with fences. The plan is working.

Dead-end Balkan

Securing Italy

But "Fortress Europe" isn't working between Libya and Italy. Last year, more migrants embarked from Libya to Italy via the Mediterranean than ever before. The EU also wants to shut this route down, as stated in numerous summit declarations. Here too, the EU hopes to employ deterrent tactics. It used to be that EU marine units would save migrants from their unseaworthy boats and bring them to Italy. In future, the migrants are to be taken directly back to northern Africa, or better still, prevented from even making the journey. If that worked, then Fortress Europe would be perfect. Because then there would practically be no way for potential asylum seekers to reach EU territory - not on land, nor via sea.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert is DW's Brussels correspondent

The farce that is asylum law

The fact that the attempts to travel to the EU are classified as illegal lies in a perversion of asylum law. Theoretically, it's possible to apply for asylum, but only once a migrant has actually set foot on EU territory. So if you can prevent people from arriving by closing external borders, then you will not be in a position to have to grant anyone asylum. Only in a few exceptional cases are there legal ways for people fleeing war and persecution to reach the EU.

This radical change in refugee and asylum policy is something that all 28 EU states want, and have agreed upon. It's no surprise therefore that the European Court of Justice is following suit. It has confirmed the practice of individual EU states that deny legal entry for potential asylum seekers by ruling that humanitarian visas may be issued, but that it is not a must. Every EU state may decide for itself how to proceed.

And so there is no reason to morally object to what is happening in Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister, in his view, is simply carrying out EU migration policy. The Hungarian parliament's decision to approve the detention of asylum seekers is possible, according to EU guidelines on asylum agreed in 2013. At most, one can accuse the xenophobic Viktor Orban of excessive application of the guidelines. Under EU regulations, detention should be the exception, not the rule. But the exceptions are described so vaguely that filing a complaint against Hungary's new practice would have little chance of success.

There are currently around 600 asylum seekers in Hungary, a ridiculously small number compared with the numbers in Italy, Greece, Austria, or Germany.

Detentions not just in Hungary

Other EU states also allow the detention and imprisonment of asylum seekers, or restrictions on their movement, during the application process or after an application has been rejected. Since the deal with Turkey, Greece has required migrants who've filed an application for asylum to remain on the Aegean islands, and to not leave the registration centers. Italy's new government wants to detain more asylum seekers in Sicily in order to make deportation easier. Italy is currently bearing the brunt when it comes to new arrivals. Consequently, the EU has expressed understanding for such a measure.

In Germany, too, restrictions on the movement of asylum seekers have long been applied. Previously, a fast-track asylum procedure was carried out, for example, in airport transit zones. And in the new arrivals centers near the border, there are also fast-track procedures that are wrapped up in just 48 hours. During that time, the migrants are not permitted to leave their lodgings.

Deterrence is the goal

Every EU state applies the asylum procedure guidelines differently. Hungary is not the only state to have a very restrictive practice - Poland is similarly restrictive. And if you read studies by organizations such as Pro Asyl, the German legal association, or religious aid groups Caritas or Diakonie, there appear to be widespread violations of the regulations. It's long been the EU's political goal to erect barriers and create deterrents. That's something all the heads of state agree on, including Angela Merkel.

But there's still no agreement on how to fairly distribute the burden of caring for the migrants who are already here. It's only right to make clear to states such as Hungary that they are not doing their duty. The agreed EU-wide distribution and resettlement of migrants from Greece and Italy is not working. This is where Fortress Europe is failing.

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Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union