This is a guest post by Julie Putseys. Julie has a bachelor’s degree in History and master’s degrees in Comparative and International Politics and International relations of the Middle East. She works as a freelance journalist in Belgium.
The war in Syria has brought us one of the worst refugee crises our world has ever known. While Syria is terrorized by a repressive government on the one hand, and radical groups like ISIS on the other, the conflict has resulted in a death toll of around 200,000 and a refugee flow of about 4 million.
Except for the actions of Angela Merkel, and a few countries like Sweden, the European Union has shown very little empathy towards the Syrians. Instead of offering asylum to the refugees to prevent an aggravation of the crisis, we’ve largely kept our borders closed and our eyes shut. Yet not that long ago, we’ve been through this ourselves: the two World Wars, which both started in Europe, brought forward the largest refugee movements in the 20th century. You’d think that the European Union – especially as it presents itself as a so-called ‘normative power’ – would take its asylum policy seriously. This is not the case.
Instead, the European Union has undermined its international obligation to give asylum to refugees, laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, herein after referred to as the Geneva Convention. Perhaps out of fear to lower our living standards or to damage our economy, our leaders have decided to draft legislation that shifts asylum responsibilities to countries outside Europe.
‘You saw them first!’
Take the ‘Safe Third Country’-concept for example, which is applied in several European member states. The principle is as follows: when an asylum seeker flees from an unsafe country, consequently passes a safe country and then reaches his final destination, he should have applied for asylum in the first safe country he’s been to. According to this concept, neighboring countries of conflict zones are basically screwed. According to this concept, it is fair that Turkey currently hosts 2 million Syrian refugees, Jordan 1.5 million and Lebanon around one million.
Another principle which is applied in Europe is the ‘First country of Asylum’-principle, which states that someone who has been granted asylum in one country, shouldn’t apply for asylum in another. This is more problematic than it sounds, because sometimes refugees don’t get a choice where to apply in the first place. In the recent EU resettlement plan, for instance, in which the EU decides on how many asylum seekers each member state should take in, the asylum seekers get no say in their designated country. So, they could be fluent in Polish yet be obliged to apply for asylum in France. Or, they could have family in France, yet be obliged to apply for asylum in Poland. If they still try to apply in a different country they are fined, detained and afterwards sent back. However, taking into account the preferred countries of the asylum seekers would go a long way in helping them integrate in society.
EU Resettlement Plan
Speaking of the EU resettlement plan, did you know we have only decided on approximately half of asylum seekers who made their way into our fortress? Indeed, we’ve decided the fates of 66,000 asylum seekers in Greece and Italy, but 54,000 more are in Hungary. The Hungarian government doesn’t want to be considered as a ‘frontline state’ and thus we are to first transport them to Greece or Italy before deciding on their fate in a second resettlement plan. And did you also know that it isn’t certain yet that the 66,000 of the current resettlement plan will effectively be given asylum? Of the thousands of asylum seekers in Greece and Italy, a selection is made of those who are most likely to receive asylum. This means, only the people from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea are chosen. But even then, their application can still be denied in the countries they end up in.
One of the important principles of the Geneva Convention is the Freedom of movement. Refugees fleeing war or persecution should be able to enter a safe country to apply for asylum, without visa and even without identification. In theory, the EU subscribes to that principle, but in reality transport carriers don’t allow passenger who don’t have any valid travel documents. According to the EU Directive 2001/51/EC transport carriers would have to pay for the return flight of asylum seekers whose application proved unsuccessful. Unless these transport carriers have a crystal ball, this policy doesn’t make any sense. This is why refugees pay 5000 Euro for a dangerous boat ride in the Mediterranean Sea instead of paying for a much cheaper plane ticket.
For a while now, European leaders have been discussing extraterritorial processing of asylum claims, ‘hot spots’ at the borders of the European Union. As a positive point, this would prevent asylum seekers from making life-threatening trips to reach Europe. However, which country would sign up to host such a center? It could pose significant stress to the countries that host it. Not just due to the large amount of asylum seekers, but also because many of them, whose application has been turned down, might decide to stay. Of course, the European Union would come up with significant payment to help these countries, but is it right to burden another country just because we can pay for it? It’s kind of like paying our way out of our international obligations, is it not?
Treatment of asylum seekers and refugees
Either way, for now asylum seekers are still admitted in our countries. They get food, water, a roof over their heads, and a few months after the start of their asylum process – generally between four and nine months, depending on the EU state – they can apply for a work permit. This all sounds reasonable, except that some of them end up in a closed detention center. In principle, according to the EU directive 2013/33/EU, asylum seekers can only be detained as a last resort. However, the criteria determining when an asylum seeker can be detained, don’t sound particularly strict. For example, they can be detained when their identity isn’t clear, when they’ve already applied for asylum elsewhere or when they’re a threat to national security or public order. This last one is particularly vague. In theory, asylum seekers can only be detained for a short period of time, but in reality their detention is often extended. In addition, the circumstances in the detention centers are far from ideal. They’re completely secluded from the outside world, often without knowing the reasons for their detention or how long they have to be there. As a consequence, detained asylum seekers sometimes go on a hunger strike, or worse, commit suicide.
If they finally receive asylum, it should be noted that there’s a notable differences between the statuses of ‘refugee’ and ‘war refugee’. A refugee is someone who has flown from persecution; he receives the refugee status. A war refugee, on the other hand, is someone who has flown from war; he receives subsidiary protection. Those who receive the refugee status are good – it’s as if they are full-blown citizens. However, war refugees receive a different treatment. In Belgium, for example, war refugees have to reapply for asylum each year. Only after five years, they can get a permit to stay indefinitely. The same goes for their work permit. They have to reapply for one each year, and even need a special permit if they want to work as an independent contractor. Another disadvantage of this kind of asylum is that they can only make use of the family reunification program after five years, after they’ve received the governments permission to stay indefinitely. The UNHCR has already pointed out that the distinction between the status of ‘refugee’ and ‘war refugee’ is too big. I wonder why this distinction exists at all.
A rise in xenophobic policies
In recent months, despite the magnitude of the refugee crisis, several EU member states opt for a stringent asylum policy. The UK and Denmark opted out of the EU resettlement plan because they thought it was too ambitious. Instead, Denmark decided on just admitting 1000 asylum seekers while the government of the UK has stated it will only admit 20,000 over the next five years. Not particularly spectacular. Another worrying trend in the countries’ policies is the decrease in welfare for asylum seekers or refugees. Denmark and Finland recently decided to cut their welfare payment, while other parliaments, like the Belgian one, are discussing similar laws. In another xenophobic move, Denmark and Belgium decided to place advertisements to discourage asylum seekers to apply. In Eastern European countries, the situation is even worse. The Czech Republic detains its asylum seekers and then asks them financial compensation for it. Finally, Hungary has built a wall to keep asylum seekers out. If one does manage to get in, he can get up to three years of prison.
Compared to the above mentioned xenophobic policies, Angela Merkel almost seems like an angel (never thought I’d say this). She’s opened up the German borders to refugees and freed up 6 billion euros to accommodate them. By the end of 2015, Germany admitted 800,000 refugees or migrants. For this, Merkel was awarded ‘Person of the year’ by TIME magazine.