5 February 2016

This piece was originally published as an op-ed in  Dutch daily De Volkskrant on 2 February 2016. All opinions expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect Open Europe’s position.

A Belgian proposal to ease the migration crisis

European policy makers are desperate. Recently, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Council President Donald Tusk said that there are only two months left to resolve the asylum crisis. Otherwise it would be over and out with passport-free travel within the Schengen zone.

Recently, Belgium proposed a possible solution. No other country has such an interest in preserving Schengen, the breakup of which would signify an unknown economic cost. Belgium wants it to be mandatory for refugees to file their asylum claims in closed Greek processing centres, [hot spots] which should offer up to 300, 000 spots.

Harsh? On the contrary. In Australia, a similar policy, whereby people need to apply for asylum in Australian-run asylum centres in Papua New Guinea, has ensured that no asylum seeker has drowned since. In European waters, on the other hand, 3,695 people drowned last year, according to official figures. Nevertheless, there’s been a reluctance until recently to take this into account. Now the EU is studying Belgium’s proposal. Considering the death toll, European opponents of the Australian model should perhaps  show a bit more modesty.

European Hotspots?

At the moment, Greece and Italy are setting up so-called “hotspots” where asylum seekers can be registered. So far, Greece has however only created one, on the island of Lesbos.

Theo Francken, Belgium’s Migration Secretary, wants “to make these hotspots European”, in order to “take it over from the Greeks, not to create 8,000 or 10,000 reception spots, because that’s ridiculous, but 100,000 or 200,000…Currently, fingerprints are taken and one can just continue travel. They need to remain in closed facilities. Whoever is being granted international protection, will be transferred, and then the chance of ending up in Bucharest will be greater than ending up in Brussels. Whoever doesn’t get this right should be returned back from those hotspots.”

Would ending Schegen be effective?

In any case it is  naive to think that ending Schengen, an extremely expensive matter, would stop people from crossing borders. To guard a land border is particularly difficult. It would be incorrect to assume the 10 million people who would be keen to come to Europe in the next few years, according to Germany’s Development Minister, could be kept in Greece, the Balkans or Italy.  Even if internal border checks are restored, the external border needs to be guarded. That is only possible if one no longer allows asylum seekers to travel through once having crossed the border. It’s also the only method to stop deaths at sea, which Australia has proven.

On the long term, even more large-scale solutions are needed. There are more and more proponents of the idea of developing a city in the Middle East or Northern Africa which would welcome all refugees. In a similar way, Hong Kong once was a city governed by British officials, inhabited by Chinese on the run for Mao’s terror. A prominent Egyptian businessman already identified 23 uninhabited islands of which he’d like to buy one to host refugees, but the Greek government wasn’t interested. At least this could serve as inspiration when seeking a location for large-scale reception centres in Greece – or outside of it –in case the Greek government refuses.

Current EU policy so far has failed to resolve the issue. To relocate asylum seekers within an area without border checks is simply not possible. People can simply travel freely from, for example, Poland to Germany. Only ending Schengen would solve this, but European policy makers are against doing that – rightly so in my opinion. In the first place, however, member states refuse to execute their so-called agreement about this. Of 160, 000 asylum seekers, only 272 have been effectively transferred from Italy and Greece. Everyone knows the decision to “relocate” is really nothing more than something Angela Merkel needs to be able to say she’s working at a “European solution” to the problem which many think she has created herself.

Also more border guards or more money or power for EU border agency Frontex will fail to stop the flow. In the first weeks of this year,  45,000 asylum seekers have already made the dangerous journey from Turkey to Greece. One could double the number of border guards, but the flow won’t stop as long as whoever is caught illegally entering Greek islands can just continue  to travel afterwards. Also, whoever is being saved by Italy’s coastguard in the sea between Libya and Italy, is brought to the Italian mainland to the satisfaction of human smugglers.

And the Dutch proposal?

The Dutch government  wants the EU to close a deal with Turkey whereby member states would accept 250,000 asylum seekers per year directly from Turkey, if it in return accepts all irregular migrants trying to cross the EU’s border. This plan makes some sense, but it remains strongly dependent on Turkey’s good will, while it also fails to tackle the smuggling route between Libya and Italy.

The situation needs to be brought under control – not least to end the continuing drownings of refugees and migrants. That can be done through the adoption of the Australian approach, which Belgium is now also proposing. Europe does not need emulate the bad conditions of Australian offshore asylum centres. There is no reason why the living standards in centres at the EU’s borders couldn’t be equivalent to those in Northern European asylum centres. If Greece cannot do it – then   Northern European countries could take on the task. Sounds utopian? In any case, the modest solutions have failed.