March 29, 2018
Guest post by Joakim Palme, Chair, Delmi and Professor of political science at Uppsala University and Kristof Tamas, Director and Head of Secretariat, Delmi.
The 2015 refugee crisis led to a series of changes in European Union migration policy, including the reintroduction of border controls and an arrangement with Turkey. Although the influx of asylum seekers to Europe has lessened, the global challenges of providing protection and a future to the world’s 65 million refugees remain. A plethora of proposals is now emerging as to how to shape future policy on asylum. Without a solid understanding of the actual problems, it is difficult to evaluate the various proposals. Unless they are realistic, the various reform initiatives run the risk of failure.
The current debate is focusing on the need to reform both the global refugee system and the Common European Asylum System. In August 2017, the French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that the EU should move asylum assessment procedures to safe areas in Africa. In 2015, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was already keen to start making agreements with third countries to resettle refugees in exchange for firmer border controls. The idea is to use resettlement as the main channel for refugees instead of receiving spontaneously arriving asylum applicants at the EU’s outer borders, as well as to relocate refugees within the EU.
However, the right to asylum is a global issue and continues to fall under the 1951 Geneva Convention. In the New York Declaration for refugees and migrants that was adopted at a UN summit in September 2016, the world’s governments confirmed their commitment to the Geneva Convention. A Global Compact is now being developed under the leadership of the UNHCR and will be presented in September.
Renegotiating the Geneva Convention is not an issue. Neither is touching the principle of non-refoulement – that no-one must be sent back to a country where their life is at risk. At the same time, resettlement is currently used only to a limited extent. Furthermore, the UNHCR is significantly underfunded and is advising against using refugee camps other than temporarily or under exceptional circumstances. Therefore, the issue of shared responsibility is key.
What should be done?
New studies published by The Migration Studies Delegation (Delmi) provide some helpful insights to the political debate on the responsibility sharing of refugees and asylum seekers.
More flexible solutions for shared responsibility
Alexander Betts et al. (Delmi 2017:10) advise against an excessive centralization of common global regulations and responses. Instead, they advocate a better balance between permanent norms and principles and more flexible solutions for shared responsibility, such as ad hoc local and regional solutions to various types of refugee situations.
It is not likely that all states will spontaneously start to cooperate, and so solutions involving physical, logistical or financial carrots and sticks will, therefore, be necessary. Another solution could be to compensate other states to host asylum seekers. A common yardstick will thus be needed to measure how responsibility is shared between different states.
Massive investment in education and infrastructure
In their study of the refugee situation in the Syrian neighbourhood, Susan Martin et al. (Delmi 2017:8) call for a more well-organized and fairer sharing of responsibilities on a regional basis. The number of refugees that a country takes in is largely governed by an “accident of geography”. It may leave countries close to an area of the conflict having to take on exceptionally great responsibility for refugees.
Approximately 84 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing countries, putting pressure on schools, health services, and the labour markets. In the long term, this can lead to refugees spontaneously moving on, for example to Europe. There is, therefore, a need for a combined effort that includes conflict resolution, resettlement, investment in education, employment opportunities, better enhanced of infrastructure and other capacity-building initiatives in developing countries.
Shared responsibility requires harmonization and obligation
In the EU, Sweden and Germany have been advocating a better sharing of responsibilities since the refugee crisis in 2015. As pointed out by Bernd Parusel and Jan Schneider (Delmi 2017:9) there is neither a fair distribution of asylum seekers nor of recognized refugees within the EU. Moreover, assessments of who has the right to stay may vary extremely much, for example; from 97 percent in Italy to only 1.7 percent in Bulgaria with respect to Afghan asylum seekers. Parusel and Schneider advocate fair quotas that would include a compulsory redistribution of refugees based on GDP and size of the population, and harmonization of asylum procedures in the Member States.
We conclude that the European Union, together with the international community, needs to drive this work at several levels simultaneously – on the ground in conflict zones but also within the EU among member states and within the UN system. Even if there is no magic formula to achieve a perfect distribution of responsibilities, we should not miss the opportunities to improve the situation. If we are successful improving system in place, there will be huge benefits for humanity, first and foremost for refugees. The alternatives are too disquieting to contemplate.