The real EU migration debate

The real EU migration debate
Comment: The death toll in the Mediterranean has put pressure on European governments to restart rescue missions. But that debate ignores a core issue asylum policy, says Mat Nashed.
4 min read
22 Apr, 2015
Asylum seekers who reach Europe are only beginning their journey [AFP]
Up to 700 people - men, women and children - died on Saturday night after their boat capsized off the Libyan coast.

It was another grim milestone in a spiralling toll of human tragedy: since the beginning of 2015 alone, more than 1,500 migrants are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean, and the rate of deaths continues to rise.

The weekend's tragedy prompted an international campaign to "Restart the Rescue". Italy's search-and-rescue programme, Mare Nostrum, which saved more than 140,000 people at sea, was shelved last year for lack of broader European support.

But while search-and-rescue would certainly help prevent so many migrants drowning on Europe's doorstep, there is an urgent need for a broader rethinking of the European Union's asylum policies.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights - a legal document at the core of the EU's identity - states that refugees have a fundamental right to seek asylum in Europe.
     There are no legal routes to the continent for those escaping war and persecution.

But here's the problem: there are no legal routes to the continent for those escaping war and persecution.

Instead, the EU spends millions committed on strengthening external border security and cooperating with authoritarian governments who are often part of the reason people flee in the first place.

This policy of deterrence is the principal factor that has pushed thousands of people to their death.

By framing refugees as first and foremost as a threat to national security, the EU has empowered organised crime. Left with no legal routes to seek asylum in Europe, people fleeing war are forced to rely on smuggling gangs and risk their lives crossing the sea on rickety boats.

Those lucky enough to survive as far as the coast of Europe face the next obstacle. According to the Dublin 3 Regulation - the keystone of the EU asylum system - a migrant has to make an asylum claim in the first EU country they enter. That state is then responsible for determining their status, even if the asylum seeker tries to enter another EU country.

If this was working, states on the Mediterranean coast would surely see high rates of asylum applications. But a glance gives lie to that assumption.

In 2014, 70 percent of asylum claims were lodged in just five of the 28 EU states. States on the Mediterranean coast recorded among the lowest rates of asylum applications. Italy, for instance, received only 455 claims. Germany received nearly 28,000 in the same period. These numbers indicate the obvious. Dublin 3 has broken.

Once in Europe, survivors depend on a second network of smugglers to facilitate their movement to northern European countries. The numbers reflect a preference for lodging asylum claims in Germany or Sweden, where migrant reception programmes are relatively well-organised and funded. For many, the presence of family or an existing support network is another factor.
     By framing refugees as first and foremost as a threat to national security, the EU has empowered organised crime.

The high rate of asylum applications reflects the failure of European policy on asylum. So what needs to be changed?

An immediate response to the Syrian refugee crisis would be a good start. Countries neighbouring Syria have absorbed more than 3.8 million refugees, whereas all 28 EU member states combined have offered asylum to fewer than 150,000 people.

And though Syrians are practically ensured asylum once they arrive to Europe, many families are pushed to give up their children to smugglers with hopes of one day reuniting.

On Monday, the president of the EU Commission, Donald Tusk, said that Europe "cannot accept that hundreds of people die when they try to cross the sea". He is right.

When European leaders hold a summit on the issue in Brussels on Thursday, reinstating an enhanced search-and-rescue operation would certainly be a positive development.

But unless legal routes are opened for people fleeing war to seek safety in Europe, smugglers will keep profiting and thousands more will drown.

Mat Nashed is a journalist specialising in issues of Middle East migration. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions stated in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.