My previous post analysed some of the immediate and long-term responses to the escalating refugee crisis in Europe proposed by the EU Commission in its State of the Union Address. The Council of the European Union reconvened on Tuesday 22nd of September to consider these measures, resulting in the adoption of a second decision on the relocation of refugees within the EU. This post examines the Council’s decision and reflects on whether it goes far enough to effectively address the present situation.
First, the Council has agreed to relocate 120,000 asylum applicants from Greece and Italy to other EU Member States (MS) within a period of two years, in addition to the 40,000 relocated as a result of the Council’s first decision. Given the disproportionate burden on these two countries, Italy will be relieved of 15,600 applicants, and Greece 50,400 applicants, according to a mandatory quota imposed on other MS. The other 54,000 applications are to be considered for relocation “as of” 26th September 2016 by the Commission, deferring this by a year unless an emergency situation arises, such as a sudden influx of people. In view of the fact that about half a million people have arrived in these two countries already from war torn regions, it must be questioned whether the number of 120,000 is really high enough. Moreover, the idea of deferring 54,000 applications for an ‘emergency’ seems baffling when the current situation ought surely to qualify as an emergency.
Second, the decision carves out an exception for MS to suspend the relocation of up to 30% of the applicants falling within its quota, again under the exceptional circumstances of ‘a sudden and massive inflow of nationals of third countries of such a magnitude as to place extreme pressure’ on the MS. However, from the preamble to the decision, it appears this can be advanced only by MS with ‘well prepared asylum systems otherwise functioning in line with relevant Union ‘acquis’’. This implies that MS with inadequate asylum systems are prevented from raising the defence of extreme pressure on their systems, possibly excluding MS like Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Third, the decision obliges MS to respect the rights and obligations of asylum applicants, specifically urging them to take into consideration the best interests of children and unity of the family when relocating applicants. It also contains an obligation to communicate all relocation decisions to the applicant in a language which she/he is reasonably supposed to understand. The decision falls short of granting applicants a right to choose their country of residence or even allowing them to state a preference. Pragmatically though, responding to applicants’ preferences might be sensible given that relocations within the EU have been counterproductive in allocating refugees to MS, with many leaving their destination country to relocate in other European MS.
Fourth, the decision requires MS to provide operational support to Italy and Greece, in cooperation with the European Asylum Support Office and Frontex, in augmenting the screening, fingerprinting, registering, and in cases of failed asylum applications, return of applicants. As I suggested in my previous post, this is a positive development that could go a long way towards providing a more a cohesive and sustained response to the crisis. In addition to this, MS are also to coordinate their efforts in providing assistance and provisions to applicants subject to relocation.
Finally, financial support will be granted to both the MS of relocation (EUR 6000 per applicant relocated), and to Greece and Italy (EUR 500 per applicant, for transportation and other related costs).
The Council Decision is bold in many respects, especially in imposing mandatory quotas on all the MS of the EU and increasing the number of applicant to 120,000, despite persistent objections from Eastern Europe. Moreover, it also calls upon the Commission to facilitate cooperation between Italy and Greece with countries like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, in relocating refugees to those MS, something that was missing from the Commission address. Nonetheless, certain key issues remain. These include the burgeoning number of refugees that continue to land on the shores of Europe and the increasing secondary movement of refugees within the EU, which also involves human trafficking and smuggling rings.