Lampedusa: Europe’s wall of shame – by Nadja Hirsch, MEP

It needed a tragedy for Europe’s leaders to put the EU’s questionable asylum policy back on their agendas. Almost 300 refugees died in their attempt to reach the continent via the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

Only in June this year, politicians congratulated themselves on the creation of a common asylum policy. It was celebrated as a historical event, a big success. It had taken 14 years to reach an agreement.

Yet, the outcome was a minimal consensus; highly controversial issues, which however would have been crucial to give the EU a future-proof asylum system, were simply left out. Instead of increasing the responsibility and solidarity among the Member States, “fortress” Europe was reinforced.

And now our leaders truly regret what happened in Lampedusa?
How is it possible that we wake up only now and realise that the current asylum system – and it has not much changed during the
past 14 years – is flawed and lacks solidarity with people
in need?

The current system is based on the Dublin II regulation, stipulating that a request for asylum has to be lodged in the country where a refugee first sets foot on EU ground. Once this was agreed, most EU countries were freed of a burden.

How many refugees would choose to sail along the cost to arrive via the North Sea or the Baltic Sea if the way over the Mediterranean Sea is so much shorter? The result, albeit not the initial purpose of Dublin II, was a reinforcement of the EU’s external borders and a growing intentness to keep asylum seekers away from one’s country. Dublin II and Frontex – they go hand in hand.

The only way we can break through this vicious circle is to replace Dublin II with a European distribution key for asylum seekers. Member States will still want to protect their external borders. However, they will be more inclined to help people in need, if they do not have to “fear” to be automatically responsible for the asylum request. Such reasoning is deplorable, but we have to assume that it is part of a calculated decision.

Already last year, the European Parliament laid the foundation for such a European distribution key and called on the European Commission to examine its introduction. Asylum seekers would be allocated to Member States according to their population and GDP. Other factors, such as relatives already in the EU or knowledge of a certain language, could also be taken into consideration to ease integration. A similar system has been in use for years in Germany to allocate asylum seekers fairly across the Länder.

The Commission, however, remained idle. Today, it is the Member States who call for a fair distribution mechanism and burden sharing. It should not come as a surprise. Only 10 Member States take on 90 per cent of asylum seekers.

The introduction of a European distribution key would affect Member States differently: For some, not much would change (e.g. Germany), whereas others would have to take on more responsibility (e.g. Poland, Great Britain, Romania). Malta and Cyprus, such a key would bring enormous relief.

A pre-condition for its introduction, however, would be that all Member States implement existing European asylum law correctly, so as to create equal conditions in terms of procedures, access to food, health services, etc. In this respect, the Commission still needs to prove that it lives up to its role as “Guardian of the Treaties”.

We should not act surprised that the EU, as an economically stable union free of war for more than half a century, represents a refuge as well as a place of opportunities for many people.

In view of the on-going political and social upheavals in our neighbourhood, we need a more comprehensive solution that goes beyond an asylum strategy. Resettlement programmes are needed to provide for a safe corridor for people out of war regions, such as Syria, to come to the EU. Also, we need to help countries from which refugees originate in order to give them a perspective and opportunities there.

Developing aid, however, cannot be the sole solution to the current problem. In fact, it does not help those refugees who already are in the EU at all. It is therefore crucial that the EU’s heads of state pave the way for a readjustment of the EU asylum policy and pursue the implementation of resettlement programmes. It is pivotal that we do not forget: asylum is a right – not charity. Any country that signed up to the Geneva Refugee Convention has an obligation to grant asylum. This obligation must not be replaced by action triggered by our bad conscience.

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