On Saturday 14 November, five party leaders will discuss with us in Lyon what their approach and proposals, both as national leaders and as members of the green European family, are with regard to the migration and refugee crisis. We will also discuss how Greens should address this issue together, which could profoundly change both our countries and the EU, and how our approach can become a real alternative to the cumbersome and controversial way in which it has been (mis)managed in the EU thus far.
For months we have been holding our breath and witnessing one of the worst migration and refugee crises our continent has ever faced. Understanding why so many people choose to embark on a dangerous journey, instead of staying in their war-torn countries, is key to understanding the root causes of this crisis. Clarifying the confusion of competences between the member States and the EU also highlights what is dramatically missing in the EU common legal framework and in the way in which the influx of refugees is tackled.
The migrant and refugees crisis in numbers
710,000 migrants are estimated to have arrived by sea alone so far this year. Currently, there are 50 million refugees worldwide and most of the 9 million Syrian refugees are either internally displaced (6.5 million) or belong to neighbouring countries (over 4 million), such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. A further 3 million people are internally displaced in Iraq. The number of refugees reaching the EU is therefore relatively limited and cannot be compared with the pressure on the countries in this region, especially if we consider the economic strength of the EU. Until the beginning of the summer, this emergency mainly focused on Greece and Italy, with many people drowning while trying to reach Mediterranean shores, however, in the last few months it has also extended to the so-called 'Western Balkan route', with many arriving by sea and then trying to make their way to Northern European countries such as Germany and Sweden. More data can be found in the UN Refugee agency's special updates.
The increase in the number of people crossing the Mediterranean compared to 2014 figures is notable: an increase of 153% in only 10 months, compared to the 280,000 crossing in the whole 2014. The majority of people are escaping from the conflict in Syria, which is by far the biggest driver of this influx of people. However, the instances of violence and abuses in countries such as Afghanistan and Eritrea are also pushing many people out of their borders, resulting in yet more people trying to escape poverty and find a better life. With the latest tragedies of the last few days, IOM estimated last week that the total number of migrant deaths on Mediterranean Sea routes to Europe have reached 3,329 in the first ten months of 2015.
What the EU is doing – state of play
Since the European Council in Tampere in 1999, the EU has been dealing with this issue, having in mind two priorities: security and the need to integrate an increasing number of newcomers. Indeed, one of the most important modifications introduced by the Lisbon Treaty is the enlargement of the competences of the EU in the field of migration with the introduction of new powers, specific resources and instruments for the European Parliament. Essentially, the only issue to be overlooked was the number of migrants to enter each State. Unfortunately, over the years, the repressive and security part of migration policies was greatly accentuated and this is still the case today. Many legislative proposals are blocked in the Council because of a lack of political agreement, the funds for migration were also reduced by 17% in the current multi-annual financial framework, and the current situation is putting the EU's capacity to act very much in doubt.
The European Agenda on Migration adopted by the Commission in May 2015, was an attempt to try to tackle this deadlock with a comprehensive approach. Since the end of the summer, however, the situation has worsened and several EU meetings have tried to address the issue. What has been agreed so far are two emergency measures of relocation of 160,000 people in clear need of international protection, from the Member States most affected, to other EU Member States. Among the actions agreed upon were the settlement of hotspots, the increase of funding to manage the emergency and the tightening of border checks. On 15 October, some "trade-off proposals" were made to Turkey, which can be summarised as follows: "possibility of Visa waiver, restarting of accession talks (and no criticism about media oppression and the Kurdish issue) as long as you do everything possible to keep refugees in your country". But no agreement on these measures has yet been found.
On the latest leaders' meeting on the Western Balkan route, it was further agreed to establish contact points between Balkan countries for information exchange, and to send EU security personnel to help countries like Slovenia - which has become the major border crossing point ever since Hungary built a fence along its border with Serbia and Croatia - and many other countries have re-introduced border controls, even inside Schengen.
Germany, which announced in the late summer that it would have opened its doors to Syrian refugees, has struggled since then to cope with the huge numbers of migrants and ultimately reinstated 'temporary' border controls. Among the announcements last week was Austria's intention to build a fence along the border with Slovenia, while many other countries have started to recriminate each other. This comes after Slovenia saying recently that it could erect a fence along its border with Croatia if the EU plan agreed on Sunday is not implemented. Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria have also recently implied that they might begin building their own barriers.
At the heart of EU's failure to cope
In the field of legal migration, the EU has the competence to lay down the conditions of entry and residence for third-country nationals legally entering and residing in one Member State for the purposes of family reunification. Member States, however, still retain the right to determine admission rates for people coming from third countries to seek work and are free to decide the conditions for the admission of non-EU citizens to live and work in their country.
Common minimum standards and procedures for asylum seekers are intended to guarantee a high level of protection for those who need it, while ensuring that national asylum systems are not abused. For example, they determine how and where applications should be processed, the standards for receiving asylum applicants, the status of people granted asylum, and the role of national authorities in meeting these responsibilities. However, the decision to grant asylum is national. Indeed, the Dublin Regulation establishes the Member State responsible for the examination of the asylum application. The criteria for establishing responsibility run in hierarchical order from family considerations, to recent possession of visa or residence permit in a Member State, to whether the applicant has entered EU irregularly, or regularly. However, "if no Member State can be designated on the basis of the criteria listed, the first Member State with which the asylum application was lodged is responsible for examining it. At the request of another Member State, any Member State may accept to examine an asylum application for humanitarian reasons based in part on family or cultural considerations, provided that the persons concerned consent" (more information here).
Also, the EU has no competences in the field of integration of immigrants. Understanding all this background could help to figure out why many were astonished when, during the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 22 September, the dramatic disagreement among the countries willing to work on more inclusive or permanent relocation measures and the ones opposing it (the so-called Visegrad countries) ended up in a Council session voting on a series of measures with a qualified majority vote instead of unanimity. This was a possibility foreseen by the Treaties; however it is rarely used, although it should not be considered an exception.
What the Greens demand
The Greens are fighting for this situation to be tackled with a human, common and stable approach. A permanent relocation mechanism with a shared effort and mandatory quotas should be implemented. Today, war is the main reason behind this influx, but climate change will become a more and more frequent cause, which the EU will have to manage whilst also adjusting to it. This crisis is a structural issue that will be with us for a long time and it is likely to deeply affect our societies. We need to put new management measures in place which are focussed on the bigger picture, based on post-Dublin mechanisms and on a road map for re-opening borders with legal channels for migration into the EU. Refugees should be able to work and make a contribution to their host country from 'day one', and the right to asylum should be defended also in the so called 'safe countries'. The countries of the EU should overcome national egoism and selfish indifference and show real unity.
As we advocated in Zagreb in May, the European Greens consider that it is time for the EU to face up to its responsibility and act in order to bring about a stop to the deaths at sea, and to consistently increase its role in helping refugees and migrants. The EU must find the resources necessary to develop a common action plan coherent with the values of solidarity and respecting human rights. Such an action plan should be based on five major pillars:
• European Mare Nostrum should be equipped with enough resources and effective instruments to counter human trafficking
• The full use of the existing legal instruments to ensure safe and legal access; for example, the possibility to apply for visas in countries of origin or the application of the 2001 temporary protection directive, notably to address the Syrian crisis
• More ambitious resettlement and relocation programmes, whilst putting in place alternatives to the current Dublin regulation
• Change the focus of trade and development and stop financing authoritarian regimes
• Reject militarization of migration policies
Keen to know more? Follow our Plenary with Green leaders on Saturday 14 November at 17:30. Link to livestreaming to be published here!