Asylum in Europe: Beyond symbolic solidarity?

Opinion by Eleni Karageorgiou PhD candidate in Public International law at Lund University

EUROPES´S ONGOING FAILURE to humanely respond to the plight of refugees has created severe problems in ensuring adequate reception for those seeking asylum. The inability of national systems to adapt to increased numbers of asylum seekers is a structural challenge throughout the EU directly linked to the question of solidarity.

DESPITE THE FACT that solidarity is intrinsic to refugee protection, it has been so far approached as an abstract charity-based commitment, very much limited to providing financial aid to states that experience difficulties to cope with refugee demands. Far from facilitating access to protection to persons fleeing violence and conflicts and thus, promoting a solidaristic approach to asylum, the EU has so far prioritized deterrence. Internally, EU countries barely commit themselves to relocating refugees from other, mainly frontline EU states under particular pressure. Instead, most EU countries have been sealing their borders and adopting legislation that significantly lowers asylum standards. Such policies have resulted in substandard protection – often in violation of international and European law – and in responsibility shifting. This begs the question: to what extent is a European asylum system based on solidarity in line with human rights standards at all possible?

TO MY VIEW, the starting point should be for states to re-visit the “problem” to which solidarity is invoked as a solution to. My research so far reveals that the problem is not really the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the EU, but rather the unfair distribution of responsibilities between states, together with the poor preparation and inadequate investment in decent asylum procedures and reception conditions. This means that EU asylum solidarity is condemned to fail by design if merely seen as a tool that legitimizes restrictive policies shifting or outsourcing responsibility to other EU or third countries. It should rather be viewed as a collective duty to assist, by undertaking responsibility to receive and protect refugees.

“EU states need to work seriously.”

EU STATES NEED TO WORK SERIOUSLY in harmonizing asylum standards so that regardless of where in Europe asylum seekers find themselves in, they are received without discrimination, granted equivalent protection and be integrated in environments which enable them to live independent lives according to international law. Sharing money and expertise at EU level could help to this direction.

As regards the allocation of responsibilities, the so called “Dublin system” currently in place has been literally counterproductive, putting the pressure to borderline states to guard the EU external borders, otherwise a failure would trigger their responsibility. This has created an incentive for those countries to make their asylum systems as unattractive as possible, encouraging onward movement. The alternative for Europe would be to move beyond any coercive system like Dublin, towards systems where asylum seekers will be in the long run granted free movement rights. Patchy solutions which maintain “Dublin” and supplement it with compensation or other sharing schemes are being proven ineffective.

IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE THIS, EU states would need to agree on a way to share reception of refugees and process of their claims that is fair to the refugees respecting their preferences

and special needs, and fair to member states by ensuring they all play a role according to their capacities and potentials. At the same time, a commitment to more safe and legal channels for people to access protection in the EU through resettlement quotas, humanitarian visas at embassies, and expanded possibilities for family reunification should be considered both at EU and national level.

FINALLY, the EU should reflect on whether more far-reaching steps to achieve harmonization of domestic asylum policies should be attempted: for instance, establishing a centralized European asylum agency deciding on asylum applications and also creating a European asylum appeal court which will monitor compliance with international human rights standards.

SOLIDARITY IS A NICE WORD. What is often sidestepped is that when it comes to EU policies on asylum, solidarity constitutes a legal principle with certain implications for states and accountability. In light of this, the question to be asked is not whether European states can afford to take their fair share and comply with solidarity but rather, whether they can afford not to. Ultimately, the future of EU asylum policies poses a great challenge on how Europe defines its collective political and legal identity.

Photo: Kennet Ruona

Eleni Karageorgiou

Eleni Karageorgiou

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