Both the ‘European family’ and the ‘European fabric’ has laid itself bare in the face of an apparently uncontainable refugee crisis in the heart of Europe. Amidst an atmosphere that ranges from animosity to indifference across European Union (EU) members states (MS), the EU Commission’s State of the Union address (Union address), delivered to the European Parliament on 9th September 2015 by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, rightly devotes significant attention to the refugee crisis and proposes a slew of measures, both immediate and long term, to alleviate the present situation. This post reflects on the four immediate measures that have been suggested, asking whether they are sufficient to ameliorate the current crisis in Europe.
The first measure is the relocation of 160,000 refugees arriving on the shores of Italy, Hungary and Greece, in an attempt to relieve the pressure placed on these countries by the Dublin Regulation’s requirement that those seeking asylum apply in the first E.U. country they reach. However, when one recalls the persistent opposition by MS to any EU mandated quota to relocate 40,000 refugees in May of this year, the idea that MS would now agree to an even larger intake seems to be wishful thinking. Of greater concern is that the speech neither urges non-EU MS like Switzerland or Iceland to remain committed to their endeavors to relocate refugees, nor acknowledges the use of the ‘sovereignty clause’ in the Dublin Regulation by certain MS, a provision which allows states to voluntarily take responsibility for asylum seekers it is not otherwise required to.
The second proposal seeks to segregate asylum seekers on the basis of their country of origin. Those deemed to be arriving from countries falling within the “common EU list of safe countries of origin” (countries which meet the basic Copenhagen criteria for EU membership) will be presumed to be safe, enabling border authorities to fast track their applications and focus their efforts on refugees from other countries, notably Syria. While Juncker makes specific reference to the Western Balkan countries being considered for inclusion in the list, he recognizes that the fundamental right to asylum should not be removed from citizens belonging to those countries. The ‘focus’ will be on Syria but the right to seek asylum will be available to all, including citizens from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The third measure, which takes its cue from the Commission’s Agenda on Migration, is a permanent relocation mechanism automatically triggered by mass migration into Europe, which will redistribute third country nationals based on certain specific criteria. This will provide support for migrants and their families, including shelter and other basic necessities. In addition, Juncker advocated for issuing work permits to immigrants to enable them to earn a living while their asylum application is pending. A specifically tailored ‘legal migration package’ has been proposed specifying rules on visa policy and effective integration of migrants into the community of the MS. A more detailed proposal is expected by the end of the year. An automatic permanent relocation mechanism with an objectively verifiable set of criteria could go a long way in addressing the lacunas in the present ad-hoc system. Moreover, turning the present crisis into a demographic advantage is of mutual benefit to the EU and third countries.
In its fourth measure, the Commission has proposed a much larger role for Frontex, the agency responsible for coordinating and administering European border management. The aim is transform this agency at the forefront of the crisis into “a fully operational European border and coast guard system”. By tripling it’s budget, the Commission hopes a number of Frontex’s functions will be improved, including: intelligence gathering and monitoring of migration movements, research into next generation surveillance mechanisms and the return of failed asylum seekers.
Depending on the outcome of the European Council meeting this week, it could still be months before these proposed measures are implemented. In the meantime, a concerted effort must be made to ensure full implementation of the Dublin Regulation. Indeed, the early warning mechanism under Art. 33 of the Regulation was specifically devised with a mass migration crisis in mind. Had the mechanism been triggered, the serious strain on the asylum procedures in Hungary and Italy might have been addressed more quickly and effectively.
A longer version of this post first appeared on the European Law Blog: http://europeanlawblog.eu/?p=2863 on 15th September 2015.
Continuing this week’s series of posts on the theme of human rights and the refugee crisis, Bríd Ní Ghráinne returns to the OxHRH Blog to discuss “Hungary’s Actions: Past the Borderline of International Law” .