European solidarity for asylum seekers?

Corinne BALLEIX

Political scientist, author of Politique migratoire de l’Union européenne

The number of asylum seekers is climbing to historic highs in Europe. The European Commission has proposed a joint, solidarity-based approach to tackling the crisis. But are the Member States willing to accept the introduction of burden-sharing mechanisms? Based on what criteria?

Consequent to the long-term crises on Europe’s doorstep, 625,000 people applied for asylum in the European Union in 2014 according to Eurostat (1), compared with fewer than 435,000 in 2013. Lying on the external borders of the European Union, Italy received 65,000 asylum applications, Hungary 43,000 and Greece 9,500. But some other Member States reported far larger numbers of applications: 203,000 in Germany, 81,000 in Sweden, 63,000 in France. Conversely, Estonia received only 155 applications, Slovakia 330 and Latvia 375. In theory, migration policy should be based on solidarity and the equal sharing of responsibilities between the Member States (2). In this context, how can we ensure that the migration burden is shared fairly across the European Union?

The Dublin regulation (3) sets out criteria for determining which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum request, the country of entry being required to record the migrant’s fingerprints in the Eurodac database (4). The decision is supposed to be based primarily on the existence of family links, but such links are difficult to establish. So in most cases the country of entry is designated as the host country, and must also be held responsible for controlling the external borders of the Schengen Area. In reaction to this, Greece and Italy do not always record migrants in the Eurodac system. They allow them to leave and to apply for asylum in other Member States, as evidenced by the asylum figures. In addition, asylum seekers are rarely relocated from one Member State to another because of the cost and the difficulties involved. In 2011, according to the Ecumenical Aid Service (CIMADE), only 1.7% of asylum seekers in France were relocated to another Member State. Taking note of Greece’s difficulties in coping with the influx of migrants, the European courts have suspended all relocations to Greece (5). Likewise, in November 2014, the European Court of Human Rights refused the relocation of the Tarakhel family to Italy, judging that the Italian authorities were not able to provide them with appropriate living conditions (6).

Such shortcomings raise questions about the free movement of persons within the Schengen Area (7). So in October 2013 the Member States adopted a revised Schengen governance package, which gives them broader powers to reintroduce internal border controls should one of them fail persistently to protect the external borders of the Schengen Area.

Distribution key for relocating refugees

In response to the tragic deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, the Commission put forward a European agenda on migration in May 2015. It contained innovative, emergency and more long-term measures to increase solidarity between Member States in managing “persons in clear need of protection”, particularly Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans, whose asylum applications are accepted in over 75% of cases. It proposed the creation of a compulsory emergency relocation scheme, with the aim of relocating (8) 40,000 people “in clear need of protection” (9) from Italy and Greece to other Member States over two years. The Commission defined a distribution key for the relocation of refugees across the Member States, which includes the following criteria: gross national product (up to 40%), population (40%), unemployment rate (10%), number of asylum seekers and refugees already taken in (10%). In return, teams from the FRONTEX agency, the European Asylum Support Office, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Member States would be sent to waiting areas (hotspots) in Italy and Greece. They would help the authorities there to register migrants and sort them into “ordinary” asylum seekers, persons in clear need of protection and eligible for relocation, and “irregular” migrants who should be removed as quickly as possible. In addition, the Commission has adopted a recommendation inviting Member States to share the burden of resettling 20,000 people from outside the EU (10) – as identified by the UNHCR – over two years. The Commission may, if necessary, propose a compulsory resettlement scheme.

Over 40% of those arriving by sea are from Syria

But the compulsory distribution scheme was deemed too restrictive by the Member States and was clearly rejected at the European Council meeting on 25 and 26 June 2015 (11). Besides increasing emergency aid for front-line countries (Italy and Greece), the Justice and Foreign Affairs Council decided, at an extraordinary session on 20 July, that the emergency distribution of migrants would be conducted on a voluntary basis: the Member States therefore decided to resettle 22,504 people – which was above the 20,000 target – and to relocate 32,250 people, with the aim of meeting the 40,000 target by the end of 2015.

However, these initiatives quickly turned out to be inadequate: in the first three months of 2015, the number of asylum applications had increased by 86% compared with the same period in 2014, and the number of first-time applicants had reached 185,000 (12). Over the summer, the numbers skyrocketed: between January and June 2015, Hungary recorded 65,415 asylum applications vs. 43,000 in 2014; between January and July 2015, Germany received 188,486 applications vs. 203,000 in 2014 (13). In response, on 9 September the Commission presented a new proposal to urgently relocate 120,000 people from Italy, Greece and Hungary, as well as a permanent and compulsory relocation mechanism, once again based on a distribution key between Member States (14).

The Justice and Home Affairs Council and the European Council are going to continue their efforts to set up a solidarity-based migration management system. Hopefully it will be commensurate with the principles that the EU propounds and the challenges that it faces.

1) Eurostat, n° 53/2015, 20 March 2015.

2) Article 80 TFUE du Treaty of Lisbon.

3) Regulation (UE) n° 604/3013 of European Parliament and of European Council (26th of June 2013).

4) Regulation (UE) n° 603/2013 of European Parliament and of European Council (26 th of June 2013).

5) CEDH, 21 January 2011, MSS c/Belgium and Greece, req. n° 30 689/09. CJUE, 21 Dec. 2011

6) CEDH, 4 November 2014, Grand Chamber, Tarakhel c/ Helvetic Confederation, n° 29217/12.

7) Regulation (UE) 1051/2013 of European Parlimant and of European Council (22nd of October 2013 modifying the Regulation (CE) n° 562/2006.

8) European Commission, Proposal of a Council decision establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy and Greece, COM(2015) 286 final, 27.05.2015.

9) Extraordinary European Council, « Declaration », 23 April 2015.

10) European Commission, Commission recommendation of 8.06.2015 on a European resettlement scheme, C(2015).

11) Solution in accordance with o) in the conclusions of European Council (23rd of April 2015).

12) Cf. Eurostat press release, n° 112/2015, 18th of June 2015.

13) L’Obs Rue89, « Asylum seekers, Map and Figures to understand », 3rd September 2015, http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/ 2015/09/03/demandeurs-dasile-carte-les-chiffres-comprendre-261038

14) European Commission, Proposal for a Council decision establishing provisional measures in the area of international protection for the benefit of Italy, Greece and Hungary, COM(2015).