Friday, 4 October 2013

The Cynics Win: European Asylum Policy 130 Deaths Later

Hundreds of dead refugees on Europe’s shores on a single day should give us cause to reflect on the basic principles of the European asylum policy, but cynics would not be disappointed if they heard the responses of our policy-makers today. “Can we do more? Sure, but that’s the member states’ responsibility,” says a spokesman of Home Affairs Commissioner Malmström. “Be under no illusion,” he continues, “it is not realistic to think that every tragedy, every death in the Mediterranean can be avoided. We are neither naïve nor too idealistic.” Between 1993 and October 2012 there have been 17,306 documented refugee deaths along the borders of Europe. This week this is already the second incident. Is it idealistic to think of a different Europe that does everything in its power to save those lives? The mass grave that the Mediterranean has become is the price that the European Union and its member states are willing to pay to prevent refugees from ever crossing our borders.

Bulgaria's border with Turkey
I have to say I did not mean to start this post like this. The issue that I want to talk about is another, even though it is closely related. Alex, me and our dog Napoleon have recently driven all the way to Greece, crossing Romania and Bulgaria on the way. Although both countries have been members of the EU for some time, we have had to show our ID-cards at the border, as they have not been permitted to enter the Schengen Area. Last week it has been France that has voiced its opposition the loudest, although Germany has been equally vocal. Ever wondered why? Well, it seems that some journalists have come to some very insightful conclusions on the matter. Reuters links it to a supposed “new influx of immigrants if Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are allowed to travel freely without passports in the Schengen zone.” France24 thinks immediately of a potential Roma-issue, ignoring that the border between Romania and Hungary poses no frontier to EU-citizens, which the Roma in question clearly are. In reality the reason for the Franco-German veto is to be found elsewhere, and it becomes quite apparent when one looks at the map of Europe. At the moment, the Schengen Area has only one border with Turkey, via which a large part of Europe’s irregular immigrations currently enter the EU, and that border is with Greece. From Greece, one has to either take a ferry to Italy, which is next to impossible for a refugee without being spotted, or one needs to attempt crossing another border illegally. If Romania and Bulgaria were to join Schengen, one could easily travel to the EU-core without the need for any further hassle. Keeping Romania and Bulgaria out of Schengen avoids such a scenario.

In 1996 Sarah Collinson wrote about the construction of a European asylum buffer zone. In 2013, this buffer zone has, for the most part, been realised. In this case, a buffer zone is created by the unfounded and systematic exclusion of Romania and Bulgaria from the Schengen Area. Greece is thus deliberately cut off from the mainland EU, preventing irregular migrants from reaching the European core. The only way for irregular migrants into legality is an asylum application, as regular immigration requires either a rich country’s passport or a job in the EU with an income of over €60,000. If an asylum application is finally submitted, the Dublin-Regulation establishes that in many cases an asylum application needs to be handled by the member state of first entry into the EU. To verify which member state that is, the fingerprints of every irregular migrant are taken upon first contact with public officials. The idea behind these rules is that if an immigrant is able to illegally enter a member state’s territory, it is that same member state’s responsibility to deal with them, and to finance and lodge them while their application is processed. If you have an external border, you thus want to do everything in your power to prevent asylum seekers from entering your territory. I have had this confirmed by an official from within the Commission during my PhD research, whose name I cannot give here. The European Commission says that it can do nothing, that it is up to the member states to create a more humane asylum system. This is a fallacy. The Dublin-Regulation, which the Commission itself has proposed, is in part responsible for the ever-increasing fortification of the EU. The Dublin-system has to end, and it is the role of the Commission to propose an alternative.

Next weekend, at the party congress of the Saxon SPD, I will have five minutes to speak on a substantial reform of the European asylum system along the lines of a previous blogpost. I had drafted a proposal on this, which has now been submitted the party in the name of the working group “Migration and Diversity” of the Saxon SPD. If the proposal is accepted, it will be forwarded to the national party congress, where it will again have to be presented. Wish me good luck that things are going to work out. If this all works out as planned, it could really make a difference.


Harald Köpping


Collinson, S. (1996). Visa Requirements, Carrier Sanctions, 'Safe Third Countries' and 'Readmission': The Development of an Asylum Buffer Zone in Europe. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 21 (1). 76-90.

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