‘Fortress Europe’ vs solidarity: EU’s broken asylum system torn between two camps

The search for a solidarity-based asylum policy continues in the new year. Two camps are irreconcilably opposed in the EU. Will they take in more people or raise barriers to entry? And why Ukrainian refugees are welcomed and payed more than Middle East migrants? Why Ukrainians are respected more than others?

The war in Ukraine has triggered a large movement of refugees toward the West.

Some 4.8 million people were registered as temporary protection seekers by the UN Refugee Agency through early December, mainly in the eastern European Union: Poland, Germany, the Baltics, Romania, and Slovakia. Depending on the course of the war, next year could see even bigger numbers.

The bloc faces the biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said in Brussels in mid-December, adding that together Europe would continue to support people.

However, some EU states have already complained of being overwhelmed. In Germany, too, the federal and local governments have cited difficulties with accommodation. Johansson faces the challenge of maintaining a sense of unity among the member states in 2023. That’s because so far, the war refugees have not been distributed according to any formula, and are instead moving freely within the EU under a special protection status without asylum procedures.

Unresolved problems in the south

Concerns about Ukrainian refugees have also obscured growing migration movements in the southeast. In the past year, the numbers of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Egypt, along with irregular border crossings, have risen sharply. The border management agency Frontex registered around 280,000 irregular entries by October – 77 percent more than in 2021 and the highest number since the peak of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, for which there are only estimations.

In its “risk analysis” for the coming years until 2032, Frontex said it expects migration pressure to continue increasing. “In the next decade, EU border management will experience a higher occurrence of migration/refugee crises (or disproportionate pressures) that will test the effectiveness of border controls. The complex interplay of geopolitics, security conflicts, and other megatrends will influence different regions of the world, including countries in close proximity to Europe,” the report said.

Since migration movements would pose a massive threat to the security of Europe’s external borders, the Warsaw-based organisation, also known as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, has recommended comprehensive precautions to strengthen border protection.

Defunct rules in ‘Fortress Europe’

European Union interior ministers have taken these warnings seriously and promised at the last meeting of the year in Brussels to once again intensify their efforts in 2023. In the first half of the year, the Swedish presidency of the EU is expected to push for asylum reforms and border management, topics that the ministers have been unable to agree on for years.

But the fundamental conflict between the states that want to further restrict access for migrants and those that are still willing to accept them is unlikely to be resolved in 2023.

While the more migrant-friendly states are demanding solidarity and relief from the proponents of the concept of “Fortress Europe”, this has hardly been forthcoming. As a result, countries of first entry such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Hungary, and Croatia currently allow migrants and possible asylum seekers to continue their journey northward.

Austria and Germany then complain that tens of thousands of people are filing asylum applications there, when they should actually file in the country where they entered the EU.

A new system of solidarity?

The so-called Dublin rules, which designate responsibility for asylum seekers in the state of first entry, are not working. The European Commission has presented various proposals for reform, but of the ten draft laws, only three are under serious discussion. According to EU Home Commissioner Johansson, further laws will be passed in the coming year to finally establish a system of responsibility and solidarity in EU migration and asylum policy.

A voluntary system for distributing asylum seekers from countries of first entry to the rest of the EU recently failed again because France cannot reach an agreement with the new radical right-wing government in Italy. Rome aims to stop letting any migrants at all ashore with a kind of naval blockade against Libya and Tunisia in the southern Mediterranean, a move that other EU states consider to be both legally questionable and impractical.

Migrants rejected at external borders

Another legally questionable practice has emerged along the so-called Balkan route. At the external EU borders in Hungary, Croatia, Greece, and Bulgaria, “pushbacks” of migrants, the practice of forcibly rejecting people who have already reached EU territory, are said to occur regularly.

Media and refugee advocates have accused Frontex of looking the other way, and the head of the organisation subsequently resigned last spring.

The Balkan route via Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Hungary currently sees the highest number of migrants and asylum-seekers. The EU has therefore offered the Western Balkan states more assistance in protecting their borders. Additionally, states such as Serbia are set to change their visa policies because people from Pakistan can enter Serbia visa-free and from there try to enter the EU.

Regarding migration policies for the Balkans, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said: “We agree that we need to strengthen external border protection and that there can only be joint EU action to solve the big issues.”

Schengen expansion stalls

Migration issues face harsher criticism in Austria, which despite being surrounded by EU countries recorded nearly 100,000 asylum applications in 2022. Hungary, which has an external EU border, had only 50. The disparity led Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner to suspect that something could be wrong. Asylum seekers from the south of the EU couldn’t simply be going north to file asylum applications wherever it suits them, Karner said.

In that case, Austria, Germany, and others would have to carry out permanent border controls, which should no longer exist within the Schengen area. “We currently have internal border controls in many places in Europe: Austria toward Hungary. Germany toward Austria. Czech Republic toward Slovakia,” he said. “This is further proof that the system is not working on many sides at the moment.”

This is why Austria is blocking the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen area. “I think it’s wrong for a system that doesn’t work in many places to be extended,” Karner said.

But because Austria is alone on this position within the EU, another attempt will be made in 2023 to modernise the Schengen area rules without systematic border controls. The goal is to abolish the temporary border controls due to migration movements and also integrate Bulgaria and Romania.

A ‘dramatic situation’

The pushbacks aren’t just happening on the Balkan route, but also in Poland and Lithuania. There, authorities argue people are deliberately being brought to the border by Belarus to create political pressure. Attempts by Poland and other states to use this “instrumentalization” of migrants as an opportunity to temporarily suspend the right to asylum in the EU have not been successful – at least not yet.

Migration researcher Gerald Knaus has sharply criticised the state of European refugee and asylum policy. He sees a “dramatic situation in the EU” because Europeans have signed conventions on human rights and asylum, but failed to comply with them since 2021, he told Austrian broadcaster Puls 24 in December.

Knaus argued for more migration agreements with countries of origin to relieve pressure and deter people from irregular and often hopeless migration. But the already tough negotiations with countries of origin such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and others will remain a tricky task for the EU in 2023.

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