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Here's what the EU must do, and fast

Doris Pundy / db
January 25, 2016

EU interior ministers plan to meet on a regular basis over the next few months to tackle the most urgent problems triggered by the huge influx of refugees. Here are the most important steps the union needs to take.

refugees behind border fence
Image: Getty Images/AFP/V. Simicek

1. Take pressure off the Schengen system

"Schengen is in danger," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned last year. In September 2015, eight Schengen zone member states reintroduced temporary border controls with neighboring countries in an attempt to decrease the stream of refugees.

"Schengen" is short for Europe's passport-free travel area. Many Europeans regard the abolition of internal border controls as a symbol of the EU member states' solidarity. Schengen also drives Europe's economy. Juncker has pointed out that border controls are immensely costly, and German business associations, too, are warning of financial consequences.

In order to relax the situation at the internal borders and make Schengen work again, Europeans need to show more solidarity where controls of the union's external borders are concerned, and concerning both distribution and care of the refugees.

2. Improve control of external borders

The situation at the EU's external borders must change to make sure that EU member states no longer shut down their borders, passing on refugees to their neighbors. Refugees must be registered and provided for as quickly as possible before they are allowed to travel on to other EU states. After months of delays, several registration centers, so-called hotspots, have finally taken up work.

They weren't designed, however, to deal with the approximately one million refugees expected to come to Europe this year. More hotspots will be needed, as well as more staff for the European Union's Frontex border agency. In addition, boosting funds for aid organizations that look after refugees outside the EU could help relax the situation at the EU's external borders.

3. Distribute refugees fairly

In July 2015, EU interior ministers agreed to fairly distribute 160,000 refugees across the entire bloc - against the wishes of a few eastern European states. To this day, only 331 asylum-seekers from that group have found new homes. Certain countries still bear the brunt of asylum requests.

Austria, feeling overburdened, recently announced a cap on asylum seekers. The EU must make sure that agreements on fair distribution are implemented. That means convincing governments that have so far refused to take in refugees from other EU member states. Temporary border shutdowns haven't worked well as leverage. EU interior ministers could put pressure on uncooperative member states by threatening to cut subsidies.

Girl in trashy refugee camp
Humane housing must be standardImage: DW/D. Cupolo

4. Respect human rights

Human rights are often abused where refugees seek shelter, experts say. The headlines were full of pictures of asylum seekers stranded at an external EU border, seriously injured when trying to climb over border fences, or so desperate they sewed their mouths shut.

Human rights organizations criticize suggestions by politicians to disable the boats refugees use, or to transfer war refugees to Turkey. Within the EU, conditions aren't always as they should be, either: since 2011, the European Court of Justice has prohibited deporting asylum seekers to Greece, arguing that conditions for refugees there are too inhumane. Accordingly, EU refugee policies must include adequate housing and care of refugees within and outside the union.

5. Act quickly

If the distribution of refugees within the EU were to continue at the present pace, it would take 750 years to move 160,000 refugees to their countries of destination, the New York Times wrote. If that isn't enough to come up with quicker solutions, the fact that right-wing parties and movements across Europe are highly popular should be enough to get the EU interior ministers moving. Their biggest challenge is getting all 28 member states to act together.

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