Wednesday 11 July 2012

A Vision of a Fair Asylum System for Europe

This morning a deflated rubber dinghy was found off the Italian coast line, with a single desperate Eritrean on board. The boat used to carry 55 people, but 54 did not survive the 15-day journey across the Mediterranean.

My home town of Leipzig has recently experienced a heated discussion about the relocation of 300 asylum seekers – people from the new location’s neighbourhood feel that their presence will lower the quality of life in the area. I have the feeling that someone hasn’t quite understood that refugees aren’t social parasites, but human beings who saw no alternative than to leave their homeland. By the way, according to the Geneva Convention of Refugees every human being has a right to asylum, and ironically those same people who complain about asylum seekers are usually those, who say that other religions disrespect human rights.

A fair asylum system doesn’t solve the problem of the widespread stigmatisation of asylum seekers, but it would contribute immensely to allowing refugees the opportunity to lead a dignified life in Europe. Unfortunately it seems unrealistic to discuss the general abolition of borders right now, which in my opinion would be the ideal solution. Furthermore, I would plead for the abolition of citizenship as well, but that also doesn’t appear to be immediately implementable. For that reason, I have five more ‘realistic’ suggestions*: the introduction of a European burden-sharing system; the establishment of a European asylum agency; the imposition of sanctions, if minimum-standards for the treatment of refugees aren’t met; the granting of a work permit and a general detention ban.

One of the basic problems of the European asylum system is the so-called Dublin-II Regulation, which determines which Member State is responsible for handling an asylum application – it is usually the one where a refugee first enters EU territory. This leads to a disproportionally high amount of applications along the EU’s external borders. Dublin-II should be replaced by a more suitable regulation, which shares out asylum seekers among the Member States according to a set of specific criteria. The example of Germany shows that such a system could work, as a burden-sharing mechanism already exists between the Länder. Among these criteria should be the GDP per capita, the Member State’s capacity to host asylum seekers, and the current economic situation, which may for instance be established using GDP growth rates. This would immensely relieve countries like Malta, Cyprus or Greece, and should not pose a challenge for Europe, as we are merely talking about 300,000 applicants per year (about 0.06% of the EU population). The wishes of the asylum applicants themselves should be taken into consideration as much as possible, especially because many already have family ties in some Member States.

Another problem that Europe is currently struggling with is the fact that success rates of an asylum application vary vastly. While it is nearly impossible to file a successful application in Greece, Sweden boasts success rates of around 30%. It is obvious that the different Member States’ immigration offices work very differently, which is why one should centralise their authority. A European asylum agency could handle all asylum applications and thus guarantee to grant equal chances for everybody, independently of national political circumstances. This agency could at the same time handle the burden-sharing mechanism.

The humanitarian conditions in European refugee camps reach from acceptable to disastrous. Upon arrival in Greece, one may expect certain homelessness, while Sweden or Germany allow for relatively good accommodation. After a quite short period of time, and even while an asylum application is still being handled, families are resettled into their own apartments. What is needed is a minimum standard of accommodation that reflects the high humanitarian standards Europe set itself and others. To implement this, a European asylum fund ought to be set up, which can be used to subsidise projects working towards this goal. Should some Member States choose not to abide by the established rules, sanctions should be imposed (sanctions that are higher than the few thousands of euros that Greece and Belgium recently had to pay).

Black labour is often the only way for refugees to finance their lives in Europe. The Member States tolerate and indirectly support this condition, because working legally is often only possible after an asylum application has been handled, which sometimes takes many years. It should therefore be possible to work legally immediately upon submission of an asylum application, both to prevent crime and to allow for an acceptable quality of life.

Finally, the EU needs to impose a general ban on detention of asylum seekers. It is absurd to imprison someone for 18 months (as is the case in Malta) just because they have entered the EU.

I am convinced that the implementation of this obviously incomplete list would massively improve the condition of asylum seekers in Europe. Of course those suggestions do not improve the situation in the countries of origin, they do not cause walls to fall, and they do not make it easier for people to reach Europe. I wish it was possible to get Frontex to help refugees come to Europe, instead of hindering them. I wish that Europe’s leaders would develop a moral consciousness, instead of trampling on human rights. I also wish that we would understand that immigration is an important part of solving the demographic problem that Europe is facing. Until such a paradigm shift is complete, much can nevertheless be done, and I believe that the above suggestions would be a good start.

Harald Köpping

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* My suggestions are inspired by a meeting of the working group of grantees “Europaforum” of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation.

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