What evolution of asylum policies in European countries since 2015?
The reception of asylum seekers as a test of European solidarity since 2015
The European Union (EU) saw a historic number of asylum applications in 2015 with 1,255,640 requests recorded in its Member States, almost twice as many as in 2014. A large proportion of these can be explained by the Syrian conflict which was the reason for almost 362,800 applications for protection that year; double the number the previous year. The total number of requests then remained fairly stable in 2016 with just over 1.2 million applications, before gradually falling to 612,000 first-time applications in 2019.
This sudden increase left the EU facing a major challenge in terms of reception of these asylum seekers. The framework for this was drawn up in the 2003 Reception Conditions Directive, revised in 2013, which sets common minimum standards relating to accommodation in reception centres, material assistance provided, access to both housing and labour market, and conditions for placement in detention. Its application is essential so that exiles can get support to make their applications properly and with respect for their fundamental rights. In order to do this, the same directive stresses the principles of solidarity and of sharing responsibilities fairly between the various Member States.
Against a background of reception, solidarity has a twofold meaning, and applies not only to asylum seekers, who get aid from a number of stakeholders throughout the asylum process, but also between Member States, through various mechanisms which are supposed to share their responsibilities (distribution of people, financial and material aid to countries etc.) Even so, in 2020, the reception of asylum seekers is still the subject of a great deal of debate within the EU, about both their distribution among the Member States and the material conditions they benefit once their applications for protection have been made in a country. Having been destabilised by the increase in the number of people arriving, to what extent have the EU and its Member States had to rethink their reception policies since 2015 and what role has European solidarity played?
Under international and European law, the countries must gather and examine all applications for protection. Although some European governments openly lobbied for the reception of asylum seekers in 2015, for others, it was more of a burden. Whereas Germany received more than a million people fleeing the Syrian civil war, upholding the idea of Willkommenskultur (the culture of welcoming), some Eastern countries, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, decided to close their borders. As for Italy and Greece, their lack of both human and financial resources soon caught up with them, given that their geographical positions placed them in the front line.
So the reception of asylum seekers is still highly variable within the EU, and most of them have ended up in a small group of Member States. In 2016, Germany took 60 % of newly arrived asylum seekers, Italy 10.1 % and France 6.3 %, and this is a trend which was further consolidated over the following years. The disparities in national policies and the lack of harmonisation have also had an impact on the rate of protection according to nationality. In 2019, 62 % of Afghan asylum seekers obtainedinternational protection in France, as compared to 76 % in Spain and 44 % in Germany.
In addition to this, the journey through the asylum system is often very complex, with all kinds of both physical and psychological obstacles along the way. There are now either increased checks on many of the main routes that people take from their countries of origin to get to the EU or else they have been completely closed off. Take the example of the Balkan route, which was taken by many migrants in 2015, but where Hungary was the first to put up barriers at its borders. This kind of practice is still going on in 2020 – in April, the Slovenian government ordered the extension of the enclosing walls along the country’s southern border in order to discourage potential newcomers. Other countries, such as Croatia, have been turning people back since 2015; this often ends up in police violence against migrant populations, which is regularly condemned by NGOs.
Once asylum seekers do reach the European continent, their living conditions are often precarious; with some measures relating to their reception having been introduced as a matter of urgency. Since 2013, the EU has set up a number of identification and registration centres in Greece and Italy. These hotspots are the first facilities receiving migrants after they have crossed the Mediterranean. Although they are designed to offer migrants logistical support and to help them with their “registration, identification, the taking of their fingerprints and their statements”, in most cases they are overcrowded camps, in which access to education, health and rights are particularly difficult and where asylum seekers spend long periods. On the Greek Aegean islands, there were 38,300 people living in camps designed to house 6,200 individuals at the beginning of May.
The asylum procedure is relatively long in most Member States. In Greece, for example, even though the government says they want to reduce the time it takes to examine applications, there are interviews scheduled up until 2025. The reception conditions are also often simply not good enough. In France, there were 98,564 accommodation places for asylum seekers across the system in December 2019, whereas there were 119,915 newly arrived asylum seekers the same year. So it is not always possible to offer housing and this leaves many asylum seekers out in the street, whereas the right to proper accommodation ought to be unconditional for everyone who is in need of protection.
Part of the reason that reception is so problematic is due to the nature of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). It aimsto offer both applicants and beneficiaries a uniform status and an equal degree of protection across the whole of the EU, and includes a section on reception, in the form of a directive. This latter is binding and applies to all of the Member States, although it leaves national authorities the choice of resources and how to achieve the goals mentioned, which explains the lack of harmonisation of standards relating to reception within the EU. In order to avoid downward harmonisation, on a Europe-wide scale, it is now no longer a question of turning this directive into a regulation, even though this would make all of its components binding.
In addition to this, those ad hoc measures on which the Member States do manage to reach agreement are often difficult to apply given that some countries are not being very cooperative. From 2015, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have failed to abide by the relocation agreement which provided for the transfer of asylum seekers from front line countries to other Member States. Between the three of them, they have taken just twelve asylum seekers, in breach of the principle of European solidarity. In 2018, the European Council proposed the setting up of “regional disembarkation platforms” in third countries in order to refer people rescued at sea to a European country depending upon their need for protection. Even so, this idea, which aimed to outsource the EU’s responsibilities rather than to increase its reception capacities, failed to receive the assent of any third countries and divided the Member States themselves.
On a national scale, a number of countries have amended their legislation on the reception of asylum seekers. For instance, this is the case with Spain and Greece, where the law passed in autumn 2019 aims amongst other things to speed up the procedures and returns to Turkey. Conversely, some governments have softened their positions. In Italy, in February 2020 the Minister of the Interior, Luciana Lamorgese, proposed a revision of her predecessor Matteo Salvini’s “security decrees”, which criminalized the aid to migrants and reorganised the reception centres as a cost-saving measure. The Italian government is even planning to regularise several thousand asylum seekers in order to allow them to work and lessen the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.
Many Member States, as they are aware of the issues relating to reception and the difficulty of introducing effective measures have laid the emphasis on outsourcing policies since 2015. The aim of these policies is to reduce the number of migrants arriving in their countries. In this deterrent spirit, a number of agreements have been signed between the EU and third countries, such as Morocco, Libya and Turkey. For instance, the 2016 agreement between Ankara and Brussels provides for reciprocal measures on immigration, to the detriment of human rights. In exchange for financial compensation, priority access to European visas for Turkish citizens and the resettlement of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey to Europe, the Turkish government undertook to halt – or at least to reduce drastically – the arrival of migrants travelling to Greece from its own territory.
In addition to this, by strengthening the mandate and resources of the Frontex agency in 2016, the EU’s aim was to give priority to measures aiming to deter people from coming. Indeed, in 2019 the European Parliament approved the strengthening of the European Border and Coast Guard by giving it 10,000 officers by 2027. The EU also mobilised surveillance resources in the Mediterranean, initially with operation Sophia, launched in 2016, which aimed to limit the number of exiles arriving in Southern Europe. The latter was replaced by operation IRINI on 1st April 2020. It aims to monitor the Libya arms embargo, whereas an increase in search and rescue operations there is more than necessary.
The way Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission from 2014 to 2019, sees it, “solidarity can only bevoluntary”. Given the poor cooperation between Member States and, sometimes, the lack of involvement with reception on a national scale, civil society has organised itself in order to help asylum seekers, with European citizens trying to use their own resources to offer solutions. In the Mediterranean, for instance, all of the operational rescue ships are chartered by NGOs.
Once in Europe, charity organisations and citizens rally round at all stages of the asylum procedure. For instance, citizens’ housing systems have been set up, as is the case in Brussels or in various areas near borders. Finally, there is a growing number of independent charity organisations helping asylum seekers with the formalities they need to complete. Some countries have particularly dense networks, such as Germany where the “Councils for Refugees” network local aid initiatives in all of the Länder.
Civic commitment is also promoted and developed by the EU, which funds many projects. Networks of charity organisations come to migrants’ aid in order to smooth their reception but can nevertheless still sometimes be threatened by the national governments. In Hungary, for example, the government has been looking for a number of years to suspend funding for projects aimed at migrants, going against all the rules of solidarity.
Although it fell away over the next few years, the increase in the number of arrivals in 2015 forced the EU and its Member Statesto rethink their migratory policies, and especially the reception of asylum seekers. Although some measures turned out to be effective, others are still not good enough, because of institutional barriers or political constraints in their application. Although acts of solidarity between Member States are among the Union’s fundamental values, most of them have not got anywhere or have only affected a small number of countries. The programme to relocate unaccompanied minors from Greece, which was launched in April, is an illustration of this, as only a few countries have decided to cooperate.
The approach of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, scheduled to take place in July, could nevertheless give new impetus to European solidarity in the field of asylum, as Germany is one of the main European political players mobilised on this issue.