Outsourcing migration policies: the EU’s failed case?

On 20 March 2016 the European Union and the Turkish Government went ahead with a ‘refugee deal’ that has since come under heavy fire from political and humanitarian representatives. Critics, including key humanitarian organisations, have been quick to condemn the deal as being ‘illegal’ and ‘inhumane’. At its core, the deal is a one-for-one settlement, where for every Syrian asylum seeker sent back from Greece to Turkey, Europe will resettle one Syrian already in Turkey.

Many of the organisations whose work is directly impacted by the deal have now decided to cease activities on the Greek island of Lesbos, a major entry point of asylum seekers, as a consequence. For these organisations to take such drastic measures demonstrates a strong rejection of an agreement made at the highest political level.

It is now something of a cliché to speak of the deal as brushing aside six decades worth of EU treaties and agreements on refugees, human rights and asylum provisions within the EU. The faltering legacy of recent EU level migration and neighbourhood policies, from Operation Triton to the redistribution of asylum seekers quota plan from last September, underlines the inability of national leaders to set aside domestic agendas and prioritise European needs over national interests. The paralysis we have observed raises serious questions on the Member States’ governments’ ability to respond collectively and proactively to ever-shifting realities.

In essence, the EU’s inability to effectively respond to the current situation has caused it to outsource the response to the crisis to Turkey. The political hope, one presumes, is that the deal will deter asylum seekers coming to Greece and thus absolve the EU of some responsibility – and thus the political and financial cost – for the crisis. However, the deal could be doing no such thing.

The Libya link

It is not the first time that the EU has attempted to outsource its border problems to a non-EU country. Libya’s Gaddafi regime received €50 million (£58.1 million) from the EU in October 2010 to police and regulate migration at its border. Between 2011 and 2014, the EU provided a further €42.7 million (£49 million) to Libya, specifically for curbing illegal migration to the EU – even after the failure of the revolution and the lack of stability in the country.

Additionally, the 2008 Friendship Treaty between Italy and Libya halted migrant flows via the sea route whilst also enabling Italy to send back illegal migrants to Libya, where they could expect exploitation and human rights violations. The situation is similar to that in Turkey today, where the one-for-one deal means that EU Member States are trading asylum seekers with a country, who through a clause in the 1951 Geneva Convention, is not legally obliged to accept asylum seekers and will thus merely grant conditional refugee status to asylum seekers coming from countries outside of Europe. The result – the possibility of sending asylum seekers back into warzones and, thus, implicitly breaking the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

With both Libya and Turkey, the EU reacted retrospectively rather than proactively, thereby placing itself in a weaker bargaining position when negotiating with outside partners. The continued failure to act on predicted refugee inflows for the coming years has meant that the coordinated response necessary has remained largely absent, resulting in crisis management policies rather than proactive preventive mechanisms.

The distinction between economic migrants and asylum seekers does not halt the need for an EU-level comprehensive approach to addressing both economic migrants and asylum seekers in Europe in a humane way, whilst abiding to European and international law.  The lack of such approach in past has consequently lead us to today’s unsustainable situation

Now what?

It is too easy to speak of vague, grand strategies of how the EU should go about ‘solving’ the refugee crisis. However, it is imperative for policymakers to start recognising that the ‘crisis’ is not a temporary blip in the system. This shift in mentality, as well as strategy, is crucial in order for the EU to regain control of a situation that is currently escalating – resulting in dehumanising policies such as the ‘refugee deal’.

At the moment, EU-level adopted legislation such as the Common European Asylum System and the European Agenda on Migration are a start, but not enough in terms of a uniform European response. The first step to avoiding future outsourcing must be to reverse the Dublin Regulation, which says that asylum seekers must be processed in the country of arrival, thus creating a heavy burden on some Member States and relieving others of responsibility. Adopting special or negotiable positions, such as that of the UK, or putting up strong resistance to such policies as seen from Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, can simply not be an option.

When the EU decides to address migration and asylum issues by outsourcing the work, they are are potentially putting refugees at risk of returning to the place they are fleeing from. The result is a blurring of individual political motivations with humanitarian needs. The 2,800 asylum seekers currently living at the detention camp in Moria, Greece, uncertain of their immediate future and lacking basic necessities are experiencing this political hybridity first-hand, and it isn’t pleasant.

Armida van Rij is a postgraduate student in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies at King’s College London.

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