The European Commission is drafting a new agreement to decide the way it handles asylum seekers
Last September the EU’s emergency refugee relocation scheme came to an end. The Council of the European Union had agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees in September 2015 but by the end of this period less than 20 per cent had been transferred, about 30,000 people.
This had been an emergency agreement to substitute the Dublin Regulations that state that the country of first entry should handle the asylum procedure of a refugee.
With these regulations it was essentially up to the countries in the Mediterranean to deal with migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East, especially from Syria.
In 2015, as the number of refugees was so overwhelming, border states stopped fingerprinting and ultimately this prevented knowing their country of entry after they reached destinations in Central Europe.
Nowadays, this doesn’t happen as much, because the hotspots, which are the main places of arrival of the immigrants, are run by Italian and Greek authorities as well as European agencies like Frontex or Europol.
In 2016, Amnesty International denounced that the Italian authorities subjected some refugees to serious beatings and electric shocks to force them to be fingerprinted.
The refugees wanted to avoid this and reach countries such as the United Kingdom or Germany and have their asylum petitions reviewed there as if it were their first country of entry.
The intention behind the relocation scheme accepted in September 2015 was to relieve Italy and Greece from the pressure of handling large masses of refugees and migrants, but they were met with opposition from the Visegrad states.
Three of them, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, voted against the quota system. Poland opposed it as well but voted in favour in the end.
In fact, out of the four Eastern European countries of the Visegrad, Slovakia has taken in the most: 2 per cent of its quota, less than 20 people. The Czech Republic has only relocated 16 people and Poland and Hungary have relocated none.
These countries were opposed to the solidarity principle by which the agreement was reached, from the beginning. They claimed that Italy and Greece needed help, but that it should be an economic one.
Romania was also one of the four countries that voted against the quota system, but unlike the other three, it did comply with the ruling and tried to relocate refugees to the country. It has achieved 17 per cent of its initial goal, which is more than Croatia, Spain or Austria, all of which voted in favour.
But even the countries that did vote in favour of the relocation scheme like Spain or France haven’t reached 25 per cent of their initial goal.
As a matter of fact, out of the member states, only Ireland and Malta have fulfilled the quota, although Finland almost did, and Sweden and Luxembourg have achieved more than 75 per cent of their objective.
Either way, “the difference of achievements in each country’s quota doesn’t necessarily mean that these countries didn’t fulfil their duty”, says Jan de Bisschop, UNHCR Advocacy Officer for the EU, “France committed to accepting 20,000 people, in the end they relocated 4,500, which is a low percentage but that is because their initial commitment was much higher.”
In his opinion, speed is also a factor, because relocating someone entails cooperation between two countries, and for example with Luxembourg it worked faster than with Spain.
Likewise, it was easier for the smaller countries to achieve a higher percentage because their commitment was much lower. In de Bisschop’s words, “That is why the bigger EU member states almost automatically have a lower percentage”.
However, the number of 160.000 was a calculation based on estimates and the member states came to it with two separate deals of accepting first 40,000 people and then another 120,000.
The latter deal with Turkey had not been considered in these calculations, so once it was struck the numbers of refugees diminished rapidly.
There are currently around 3750 refugees eligible under the relocation scheme, 3000 of them in Italy and the rest in Greece.
These are the people that came to Italy before September 2017 and who therefore can still apply. On the other hand, the period ended in March 2016 in Greece, so only the refugees that were there before this date can be relocated under the plan. 40,000 others cannot and are trapped in the Greek islands.
What happens in the Central Mediterranean route however is mixed migration. These are the ones that try to cross to Sicily and Sardinia. There are refugees, but most of them are economic migrants. “85 per cent of people that try to cross from Libya are economic migrants and 15 per cent of them are refugees”, says de Bisschop.
Whether the states that haven’t taken in any refugees will be sanctioned remains unknown. But if they are not it might send a dangerous message across the EU. That states can disobey Council decisions and get away with it.
The fact that these states are one of the biggest recipients of European cohesion funds and Regional Development funds is also upsetting to some.
The case of Poland is very apparent as it is the member state that gets the most money out of the EU. Some states interpret this as a lack of solidarity.
The process of relocating refugees was slow at first but it sped up earlier this year in January. A reason for it slowing down could have been a lack of political will in many member states argues Dr. Florian Trauner, an expert on asylum and border control at the Institute of European Studies in Brussels.
Far right wing parties have also shaped the decisions taken by states even while being out of government, by simple fear of criticisms and of the rise of populism, in particular in Eastern Europe but also in countries like France or the Netherlands.
“Slovakia had to take in 1500 refugees which is nothing in absolute numbers but these numbers are blown up in the political discourse, they are used to mobilise masses”, adds Trauner.
At the same time, although it isn’t an official requirement of the relocation scheme, the authorities try to get the consent of the asylum seekers before sending them to a country.
This causes unwanted situations as some states want the refugees more than the refugees actually want them. “Portugal is one of the few states that wanted to fulfil more, but it is very difficult to make migrants want to go to Portugal,” says Trauner.
Diane Angermueller, a Policy Officer at the European Commission who is drafting the plans for a new Dublin Agreement, denies the probability of sanctions, as punishment against the countries that are not complying and do not show intentions of doing so. “With the discussions that we’re having now in the council we don’t think that it (sanctioning) is the best way to reach an agreement”.
There is fear that if the Visegrad states get sanctioned it will make the talks for a future deal much harder.
The new “Dublin Agreement”
A new agreement to deal with asylum seekers is being drafted and discussed in the Commission. It is still unknown whether it will include automatic mechanisms that will be triggered once a state doesn’t comply or if it will involve longer procedures.
Angermueller argues that it does not look like that is the way the Commission is heading. Also, the inclusion of a mandatory relocation of refugees might be left out of the deal.
“For a very long time we have been saying that everybody has to take in refugees but it is leading nowhere so I think this will not be in the agreement in the end”, she adds.
The previous agreements on the relocation scheme were voted on with qualified majority and the Visegrad states did not accept it. This is why the Council wants full consensus on the new agreement.
The current negotiations are trying to make the previous emergency relocation scheme into a permanent quota system. The Commission does not want to rule out that some countries will not want to take refugees in, but wants to put a price on every rejected asylum seeker.
Therefore, what is being discussed is that if a member state does not want to fulfil the quota it will have to pay a price for every rejection.
Plans for a reinforced Schengen area are also being negotiated. It might involve additional benefits for those member states that are willing to take on more responsibility.
“It will probably never come into existence, but it is just one of the ways of making Eastern Europeans accept their responsibilities in the field of asylum seeking”, comments Trauner.