Looking ahead to the future of the EU asylum system, what is the impact of Covid-19 on solidarity within the European Union? A debate on the dysfunctionality and possible solutions.
Erik Maquardt, Member of the European Parliament and Josephine Liebl, Head of Advocacy at the European Council on Refugees and Exils in a conversation with Anna Schwarz, Head of Global Transformation Programme, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.
Anna Schwarz: At the beginning of the year, the EU Commission had announced that it would be publishing a ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’. The release has been repeatedly delayed, likely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Aside from the pandemic, what’s holding it up? And what are your expectations and fears for this pact?
Erik Marquardt: I think the Commission itself does not precisely know when the right point in time will be for publishing the pact and what it should contain. The Member States are very far apart on this topic. It is therefore neither the Commission nor the European Parliament that is preventing a reform of the European asylum systems, but the national states.
There is already a European legal framework. In practice, asylum policy only departs widely from it. I fear the new pact will not bring any improvement, but turn practice into laws: people are denied access to the procedures of the rule of law; they are humiliated and must generally live for years in ignoble conditions. That has nothing to do with European values or European opportunities for helping people. I can only hope that the debate about the new asylum system makes clear that migration is not a bad thing. The EU has a success story to tell on migration. For that reason, we should see ourselves as visionaries for a global migration policy. A vision for the future has to be developed and thus a robust asylum system, which foregrounds human dignity and assures good management of immigration movements, has to be created.
Josephine Liebl: There are many fears on our part: one concern is the current trend of outsourcing responsibilities for asylum. At this time, all Member States are of the opinion that third countries should take on more responsibility in asylum and that the solution for everything lies in increasing the number of people returning. Another major fear is that nothing will change in the dysfunctionality and the inhumane nature of the current asylum systems. The discussion and the suggestions for mandatory border procedures are a great indicator that this lack of solidarity within the EU will continue. What we hope is that there will be an investment in functioning, just asylum systems in all EU Member States. A principled way to a joint asylum policy entails a respect for the procedures of the rule of law in all EU Member States. Another important question for us is that of inclusion: How do we treat people who have arrived in Europe?
In recent years, the situation for people who cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe has worsened. Right now, in the course of the pandemic, Italy and Malta have announced that people rescued at sea will not be allowed to enter their ports. How can we get out of this completely muddled situation?
Erik Marquardt: The decision not to save people in distress at sea is totally inhuman. The EU Commission and the German government have however repeatedly asserted that rescuing people in distress at sea does not lie in its area of responsibility. Moreover, the EU has an absolutely hypocritical attitude toward Libya. On the one hand, they give speeches on foreign policy and defence policy about how terrible the situation in Libya is. On the other hand, one does not draw the conclusion that the European Union is responsible for assuring a safe escape route for people fleeing the Libyan civil war. Organisations and people who want to protest the policy of sealing off Europe are turned into criminals. To resolve the situation, it would be possible for individual Member States to send rescue ships. Even the German Federal States would be able to provide support for help organisations working in sea rescue either with their own ships or with financial assistance. It is important that actors at various levels work together. There are many communities and regions in Europe, and also the German Federal States, which would be happy to accept people. Even here it is the national government that is blocking things. Seeing things from a broader perspective, we need a European sea rescue organisation and a distribution mechanism whereby that cannot be a precondition for organising sea rescue.
Josephine Liebl: What we are seeing right now in Malta is the terrible result of the dysfunctionality and inhumanity of the current asylum system.
The reaction of the politicians of the Mediterranean states can in part be explained by the lack of solidarity within Europe. We have seen in the past how right wing populists such as Matteo Salvini were able to exploit this division between EU Member States at the expense of people seeking projection and safety in Europe.
The EU has suspended its Resettlement Programme indefinitely in reaction to the pandemic. What is the important thing in coming years from your point of view when it comes to resettlement?
Josephine Liebl: In recent years, there was both an increase in the number of refugees who were resettled by EU Member States as well as the number of countries, which participate in resettlement. In the last year, it was possible for something like more than 25,500 people to begin a new life through resettlement in sixteen EU Member States. In December 2019, the EU jointly decided to accept 30,000 refugees in 2020. This is in any case an increase and should be welcomed. However, in a situation in which, according to the UNHCR, 1.4 million people would need resettlement, this is still not sufficient. We are very worried that the temporary suspension of resettlement due to Coronavirus will mean that the objective for 2020 will not be achieved. We assume that it will also have an influence on the numbers in the following years. There are of course other possibilities for accepting people. Family reunification is one option, as well as humanitarian evacuations, especially from Libya.
Erik Marquardt: Many states have made it very easy to suspend the Resettlement Programme in the shadow of the pandemic and further limit family reunification. This demonstrates solidarity with those who are in the greatest need, at least. The objective should be to meet the goal of 30,000 in any case. Additionally, one has to think about how to handle those people who right now are coming to Europe irregularly in very small numbers.
The topic of return has also become very important to the EU Commission in recent years. It has repeatedly demanded an effective return policy from the Member States, by which it means returning as many people as possible. What are your concrete demands for a European return policy?
Josephine Liebl: The suggestion that one would only be able to operate a functioning and humanitarian asylum policy if one increases the number of return is demonstrably false.
If, however, governments do return people, three preconditions have to be met. The first is a fair asylum system within Europe, which can thoroughly assess whether there a person has a right to protection and if there is any danger of human rights violations in the event of repatriation. In our opinion, that has not yet been established, which is proven by a mere glance at the divergence between the rates of recognition of asylum between the various EU Member States. Secondly, we need fair return policy and processes. The priority should always be given to voluntary repatriation in which the individuals as well as their families and the societies in the countries to which they return are supported. The third point is the necessity of fair and transparent partnerships with third countries, which have to be submitted to monitoring by the European Parliament. Additionally, the use of development funds in order to coax third countries into cooperating with the EU Member States in the area of returns has to stop. This contradicts all principles of developmental cooperation and leads to ineffective and mismanaged developmental cooperation. This is another way that the EU makes itself susceptible to extortion and thereby reduces its standing as a principled actor on the global political stage.
Erik Marquardt: What really disturbs me about the debate is that vulnerable people are deprived of their rights and this is just taken for granted. But with respect to return, the implementation of the rule of law is what is called for. It is to everyone’s disadvantage if the only lasting prospect from remaining in the country means a life outside of the society without any right to work and without legal status. In the individual case, it is important to see if and how legal status can be granted. In principle, no one can be returned to warzones or areas in crisis. And one has to give people enough time and opportunity to create the legal and financial bases to build a life for themselves in the respective country. Deporting people without any prospects for the future will most likely lead to them wanting to return to Europe again. In this context, it is also very important that we offer immigration options to low-skilled workers. The pandemic should be a lesson to us: it is especially these people who preform indispensable work in our system.
Thank you both for the conversation!
The conversation took place on 27 May 2020.