Lost at Sea: Three Options for the EU to Improve its Refugee Policies

Brynne Moore

In past weeks, the world has seen harrowing pictures and video footage of drowning children, abuse towards refugees, and barbed wire fences constructed around state borders in Europe. Faced with the biggest influx of migrants since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some countries in Europe have been widely criticized for their closed border policies and what has been described as inhumane treatment towards migrants, while others have committed to accommodating as many migrants as possible. The moral debate surrounding what to do about this influx of migrants has forced immigration policy to be front and center on the policy agenda- not only in Europe, but for countries all over the world.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are currently 60 million displaced persons in the world, about 350 000 of whom have entered Europe this year, and 50, 000 arriving to Hungary in August alone. Of these, almost 3 000 people have died trying to enter Europe this year, which is an indicator of the dangerous conditions that migrants endure in the hopes of escaping the conflict in their home countries. In response to this influx of migrants, the EU has admitted that its asylum procedures are inadequate and out-dated, favouring national interest over a common European response.

The almost unprecedented number of displaced migrants has prompted widespread debate among policymakers. This influx has put extreme pressure on the capacity of many European countries, prompting decision-makers to examine the tools at their disposal that could provide relief to both refugees and over-burdened states, which provokes the question: what can European policymakers do about it

Legislative Reform

In 2014, just 5 EU states handled 72 per cent of all asylum claims. According to the Dublin Regulation, the EU country where a migrant first arrives is responsible for processing that person’s application; the result of which is that some countries are being disproportionately burdened by the administrative load of processing refugees. Because asylum seekers favour some “frontline” countries like Hungary, Greece, and Italy for geographic reasons, these countries face a prevalence of overcrowding and backlogs.

One proposed solution has been to revise the Dublin Regulation to allow migrants to process claims in the country where they decide to settle permanently, rather than in the frontline country of their arrival. This could reduce administrative backlogs in countries like Greece and Hungary, given that many migrants eventually relocate to richer countries like Sweden and the UK. In addition, common rules regarding asylum procedures as well as data sharing on migrants, like fingerprints and identification information, could streamline this process. However, it is unclear what resources would be needed in order to build this sort of administrative capacity, and which countries would be expected to foot the bill.

Asylum Quotas

In this past, this option has been extremely contentious. In May, the European Commission (EC) attempted to institute a mandatory quota system to facilitate the settlement of at least 40, 000 Syrians and Eritreans. However, consensus could not be reached, and members of the (EU) agreed that countries would continue to accept migrants on a voluntary basis. Again, in September, the EU interior minister failed to reach an agreement to settle 120, 000 migrants as a result of many member states’ security concerns. Many states fear that violent jihadis masking as refugees will cross their borders, putting their citizens at risk. One right wing Dutch politician even called the most recent wave of migrants an “Islamic Invasion”. However, with appropriate screening, and administrative capacity-building resources, these concerns are surmountable.

The UK, in addition to many Eastern European countries, objected to the idea of a mandatory quota. In a joint statement released on September 4th, the leaders of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia publicly rejected the adoption of a quota system. Additionally, some Eastern European states have expressed preference for Christian migrants, adding a dimension of religious discrimination to the crisis. Selecting migrants based on religion violates EU non-discrimination laws; however, this has not stopped many Eastern European countries from adopting discriminatory immigration policies, citing national security as justification. This sort of preferential bias is not only a violation of EU law, but also a violation of migrants’ rights.

In contrast, Germany has recently taken the lead in opening its borders to refugees –pledging $6.6 billion towards the 800, 000 refugees and migrants that it has promised to accept in just this year alone. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that the resistance of some countries to accept migrants acts as a threat to Europe’s open-border policy. Experts warn that if Europe does not implement policy as a whole, the result will be disjointed and contradictory state deals, based on public opinion that are not only confusing but that will add administrative costs. Since the establishment of the Schengen zone –doing away with passport control in 22 European countries, in 1995, bureaucratic border costs have dropped dramatically. The free flow of people has also come with significant economic benefits. However, with this new wave of immigration, this open border policy is at risk of deteriorating., which could in turn negatively impact Europe’s economy.

Critics of immigration quotas argue that quotas are not sustainable; however they –in conjunction with specific settlement rules- could be offered as a short-term solution to the current crisis.

Legal Migration Paths

A third option for European policymakers is the establishment of asylum processing centers in Africa and the Middle East to handle applications near their origin in conflict areas. This would likely pose a considerable implementation challenge, but could play a significant role in preventing the likes of recent tragedies from recurring –given that refugees would no longer have to undertake the dangerous (sea) journey across the Mediterranean. These asylum centers could also alleviate some of the current burden on frontline countries.

The EU has made commitments to set up a pilot center in Niger to spread information about Europe’s immigration policies in an effort to reduce human trafficking from West Africa to the EU. However, critics have argued that these “hot spots” – and their potential to attract masses of migrants–run the risk of overwhelming already fragile regimes in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Overall, the European reaction to the migration crisis has been contradictory and uncoordinated. Germany has committed to increasing the number of allotted refugees, while Hungary has erected a 174-kilometer barbed wire fence on its border with Serbia. Given the nature of the conflicts surrounding Europe, it is likely that the number of migrants will continue to rise –something that Europe with its aging population, stagnant growth, and falling birth rate could stand to benefit from.

Young workers with diverse skills sets could be exactly what Europe needs- one fifth of the population in Germany, Italy and Greece is over 65 years old. Although there might be a short-term cost, experts argue that in the long-term these costs are more than offset by immigrant tax contributions. A recent study by the International Labour Organization found that migrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits like welfare, and make positive contributions to the economy.

Many countries like Greece are financially strapped and have recently had difficulty keeping banks, schools, and hospitals open, so it is unsurprising that immigration reform is currently not a top domestic priority. The question facing decision-makers and politicians right now is how to juggle these domestic priorities, while still respecting the international human rights of refugees. There might not be an overnight solution to the crisis, but there is undoubtedly a humane one.



Brynne Moore is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from McGill University, and has recently worked for both the House of Commons and the City of Ottawa. Her main areas of policy interest include health policy and fiscal policy.




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