Refugees: the half-closed doors of the European Union

By Lino González Veiguela

The lack of consensus and the measures which are both unrealistic and lacking in solidarity demonstrate the minimum efforts of EU countries to take responsibility for the arrival of refugees.

The number of asylum cases granted has increased significantly …

The EU-27 countries (no data available yet on Austria) granted some form of legal protection to some 183,000 asylum seekers in 2014, according to its latest report. This resulted in an increase of almost 50% on 2013 figures. Of those granted asylum, 160,000 were granted the first time round and 23,000 on appeal.

The percentage of cases granted, compared with revised applications throughout the year, varies greatly from one country to another. Average approval stands at 44% for first-time-round decisions and only 18% after an appeal. At one extreme are countries like Bulgaria, Sweden and Malta, which resolved 94%, 77% and 73% of cases in the first instance positively (in that order); and at the other extreme are Hungary, Croatia and Luxembourg, which only granted protection in the first instance to 9%, 11% and 14% of cases.

But not all countries show the same commitment. The European Union still has no harmonised asylum mechanisms which are binding for all member countries. That explains in part the disparity in the numbers of refugees that each accepts. From the point of view of the asylum seeker, these differences have a major effect on waiting times in the resolution of their case, actual rights granted, and very different future prospects depending on where asylum is requested.

In 2014, the countries that accepted most refugees by total volume of concessions were Germany: around 47,500; Sweden, 33 000; France and Italy, about 20,600 each; the UK, 14,000 and the Netherlands, around 13,000.

Spain is among the countries that showed least commitment to the right to asylum in 2014. It is one of the largest economies in the European Union, one of the most populated and a natural EU border. However, the number of asylum applications which were resolved positively totalled 1,600 out of a total of 4,500 reviewed. While in the case of other European countries it could be argued whether or not they should – if they could – extend protection to more refugees each year, in the case of Spain it is difficult to find any justification for their asylum policy, which in recent decades has persisted in spite of the various changes of government and fluctuations in the economic situation. However, Spain is only one of the many European states which have questioned the criteria of the Commission for redistributing thousands of refugees arriving in Italy and Greece between the other community partners.

Among the Spanish arguments: the high unemployment rate; and the great effort made by Spain in the past in managing immigrants and refugees. But the prize for statements opposing the Commission’s plan should be awarded to the Polish authorities. Poland would agree to accept a voluntary quota system which, in its own case, would result in the admission of a few Syrian families – provided they are Christian (although this criterion is also applied by other Member States); a position which smacks of religious extremism, radically violating several fundamental principles of the European Union but which does not clash – in its final aim of screening and limiting the exercise of a human right – with the general framework of quotas and ceilings we see concerning refugees admitted to Europe.

Syrian refugess in Akcakale waiting to return to their homes in Tel Abvad, Syria. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans: the most protected nationalities

The nationalities which obtained most protection in 2014 were, in this order, Syria (68,000), Eritreans (14,600) and Afghans (14,000).

In the case of Syrian refugees, some will say that the EU has made a considerable effort. There is data that would back this up: 37% of all registered positive resolutions in the EU (when they were 27 members) were for Syrians. For 2013, the number of Syrians protected doubled – and quadrupled when compared to 2012. The protection of Syrian asylum seekers, however, is not turning out to be the same in all the member states: of the 68,000 registered asylum cases granted in 2014, 60% were concentrated between two countries: Germany and Sweden.

That Nordic country is the only European state that has committed itself to automatically granting residency to all Syrian refugees who arrive in the country, also facilitating family reunification. From the efforts made by countries like Sweden, it does not follow, however, that the country takes on this task because it has more than enough resources and lacks any internal opposition. In the last elections, the far right won 13% of the vote and its programmes certainly do not highlight placement of refugees as a favourite measure. Youth unemployment is in double digits: over 25%. In addition, Sweden has problems, like everyone else with providing all refugees with homes, and the public authorities responsible for managing the flow of refugees will need a substantial increase in their budgets in the coming months and years.

A similar concentration occurred in asylum concessions for Eritrean refugees: three quarters of total asylum cases granted in the EU-27 – about 14,600 – were in three countries: Sweden, Netherlands and the UK. In the case of Afghans, of the 14.000 asylums granted, half were in two countries: Germany and Italy.

The most important figures which accurately assess EU effort in helping Syrian refugees are not Eurostat’s. It is the UNHCR that provides them: over 3 million Syrians have become refugees, to which we have to add 6.5 million IDPs (internally displaced persons). Most have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. In Lebanon, with about 4.5 million people, there are already more than one million Syrian refugees. In Turkey there are almost two million Syrian refugees living there (although the government has already announced its intention to close its borders and has stuck to its word; a few days ago hundreds of desperate Syrians jumped the border fences). It is against the immensity of these figures that we should place and value the role of the EU in recent years.

Do the EU and the United States contribute to caring for refugees and IDPs in neighbouring countries to Syria?

At the last donor conference organised by the UN in late March, commitments were made by donors to provide $3.5 billion. This beat the 1.76 billion figure committed to in the previous donation but was well below the 7.7 billion requested by United Nations.

It is not even certain that the amounts involved will finally be handed over, despite this sum being less than half the money actually needed to cope with the humanitarian disaster. UN representatives recalled at the end of the donor conference that the amounts committed to at previous conferences had not been delivered in full.

The EU has announced a contribution of €1.1 billion, 500 million of which will come from the EU budget itself and the rest from donations from member countries. Nearly a third of the total funds thus come from Europe. Spain has pledged 5 million euros. The calculation is simple: by dividing the €3.5 billion between the 9.5 million Syrians, which UNHCR estimates are refugees or internally displaced persons, we come out with an annual amount slightly over one euro per person per day. If, from that figure, we subtract logistics costs, salaries for humanitarian workers, and the frequent leaks which occur in this type of humanitarian operations, the final amount that can actually be used in providing aid for these millions of people will be much lower.

For its part, the United States is to deliver about 472 million euros to the UN to help refugees and displaced Syrians. At the donor conference, the US Ambassador to the UN,  Samantha Power, said that both her country and others should make a greater effort to take in those displaced by the Syrian conflict. The US government has announced its commitment to accept thousands of refugees from various conflicts, including Syria, in the coming months. Until that commitment starts to materialize, the figures for Syrian refugees who have managed to enter US territory are shockingly low: 524 from the beginning of the war in 2011 up to the end of 2014.

And now what?

The European Union is proving, once again, that the real problems it faces are further complicated by the lack of internal cohesion. On 16 June in Luxembourg the EU interior ministers met to discuss what measures are to be taken to manage the flow of refugees reaching Europe, in particular across the Mediterranean. The meeting ended without an agreement. Countries will sit to negotiate again on 25 and 26 June.

Internal disunity

Several European countries insist on rejecting the Commission plan to accept compulsory quotas of refugees who have arrived in recent months in Italy and Greece. But they are not proposing adequate alternatives to manage the flow of immigrants/refugees who keep turning up at European borders.

For the moment, France and Austria have increased control of their borders with Italy and are proceeding to send back immigrants who try to enter their territories to Italian soil. Policy makers in these countries justify themselves by saying that immigrants entered the EU through Italy and, therefore, by law, Italy must deal with them. In the background of the debate is the European regulation known as Dublin II, which aims to determine which European country has to manage asylum applications: as a rule, it will have to be the one the migrants entered the European area through illegally.

Do European leaders believe that Dublin II can continue to be applied to manage the current flow of refugees?

For the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, Dublin II has to be rethought. He has already warned other European heads of government that if no commitments are made to help Italy with the influx of refugees, their visas will be extended to enable them to move freely around Europe. Many of the refugees arriving on the Italian and Greek coasts have no intention whatsoever of staying in those countries, as they offer fewer rights and poorer future prospects. Meanwhile, Germany has responded forcefully: it will not commit to accepting any more refugees if the Italian authorities do not increase the pace of deportations of economic immigrants.


Internally, the EU is failing to agree on lines of useful, consensus-based action to provide an asylum policy which will rise to the occasion. Outside the EU prospects are not much more encouraging.

Much of the European discourse on the high influx of refugees has focussed on the role of the mafias trafficking in human beings, particularly on the banks of the Mediterranean. The High Representative for European Foreign Policy, Frederica Mogherini, in May requested support from the United Nations for a military operation in Libya that would aim to “save lives and prevent more deaths at sea”. The support of NATO has also been sought. Under the spotlight of this mission would be the traffickers and the eventual destruction of the vessels used for trafficking – many of which were bought from fishermen. The goal is laudable but it is questionable whether military means are the best suited to do so. The last European military intervention in Libya was not exactly a success.

It should be remembered that, besides causing a civil war, the overthrow of Gaddafi ended agreements between several European countries, including Italy and the Libyan regime, to control the flow of migrants – without any measures for protecting minimum rights. The current situation in Libya prevents the European Union from being tempted to reach agreements such as those reached with Morocco for the “control of irregular migration” and which in practice, mean moving European borders further away in order that the Morocco handles the least pleasant job of containment: border control and deportation.

Another measure that could be taken by the EU, which has already been raised in discussions to date, has to do with setting up refugee camps in Africa. Renzi has suggested the possibility of setting up camps in the countries of the Sahel, such as Niger and Sudan which, with the help of the UN, would concentrate the refugees together; in other words, taking the problem as far away as possible from EU borders. It remains to be seen how these camps would be set up and if, indeed, they would serve as an intermediate holding point on the way to Europe, while asylum applications are processed. The past record is not positive: the Australian government took similar action, concentrating asylum seekers in camps in Papua. The UNHCR has expressed its concern about both the conditions of refugees detained in Papua and the lack of legal rights and guarantees there.

Turning to the Eritreans who are coming to Europe, their number has increased greatly in recent months, we should bearing in mind that many are fleeing from refugee camps set up years ago in Sudan or Ethiopia. If the new camps replicate the disturbing conditions of the older ones, refugees will continue trying to reach European shores. Perhaps because European politicians know that, they are trying to reach agreements with the Eritrean regime – a kind of perfect model of the most repressive authoritarianism – to strengthen control of their borders: a pact (with the devil) to further complicate the flight of Eritreans, who rightly feel locked up in their country.

Another measure that European countries could agree would go along the lines of replicating the actions of Israel against its Eritrean and Sudanese refugees: the Israeli government has reached economic agreements with countries such as Rwanda and Uganda to deport thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living in its territory to those countries. Refugees in exchange for money: a new form of globalisation.


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