European governments decided on tentative steps towards common immigration policies on Thursday in response to the refugee emergency, opening talks on surrendering national control of borders to new EU authorities and calling for more and quicker deportations of failed asylum seekers.
The first move in a new and bitterly contested system of EU quotas for sharing 160,000 refugees takes place on Friday when 20 Eritreans are to be flown from Rome to Sweden under the scheme.
Ten planeloads of failed asylum-seekers are also to be flown home next week as EU interior ministers talked up the merits of more visible deportations to try to deter migrants from making the hazardous trip to Europe.
“All measures must be taken to ensure irregular migrants’ effective return, including use of detention as a legitimate measure of last resort,” a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg decided. “In particular, Member States should reinforce their pre-removal detention capacity to ensure the physical availability of irregular migrants for return.”
The combination of welcome for bona fide refugees and swift punishment for the less fortunate is being described by EU policymakers as a breakthrough in the painful process of hammering out a coherent response to the mass influx of people this summer, mainly from Syria.
Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg minister chairing the meeting, signalled that there had been surprising progress towards the creation of a single EU border guards system under which countries would surrender national powers in favour of a new regime led by Frontex, the fledgling EU borders agency. But he acknowledged the issue was sensitive.
“On borders, you have the sovereignty and primary responsibility of the country concerned, that’s not in dispute,” he said, while adding: “A large majority was in favour of collective responsibility.”
The common policies struggling to be born out of the disarray, panic, and rancour of recent months are riddled with problems, while the inflated rhetoric of policy-makers creates expectations that are likely to be dashed.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner in charge of immigration policy, for example, described Friday’s resettlement of 20 Eritreans under the new compulsory quotas system as “historic”.
But the overall figure for the quotas is 160,000 and diplomats working on the policy now say it is almost impossible to identify potential beneficiaries among the 600,000 people who have entered the EU this year because most refuse to be registered at the point of entry in Greece or Italy and do not want to be “relocated” to arbitrary countries on a quotas list.
Thursday’s meeting also made great play of the new “hotspots” system which is barely operational in Italy and not yet working in Greece, although EU summits and governments have been talking about it since April. It is a German-backed scheme for receiving migrants who are interviewed, identified, and finger-printed.
Without functioning hotspots, Berlin and Brussels insist, there will be no sharing of refugees. But the concept is also mocked. “Everyone talks about hotspots, but no one has ever seen one,” said an EU ambassador. “It’s a bit like the yeti.”
Only 4% of people arriving in Greece are being registered and Athens does not have the rudimentary electronic equipment needed to carry out the finger-printing, EU diplomats said.
The first EU head of government to visit Lesbos, the Greek island where most migrants arrive from Turkey, was Werner Faymann, the Austrian chancellor, who went there this week. He said on Wednesday that he saw fingerprinting being done on to sheets of paper because the Greeks lacked the computer equipment.
“There has to be significantly more than is currently being prepared to achieve border security with the possibility of guaranteeing the right to asylum through a door called ‘distribution centre’,” he told Austrian radio.
The statement from the interior ministers also admitted that several of the laws and rules established long ago in the EU were simply not being observed by national governments. Despite all the tough talk of a new deportation drive, up to half of failed asylum seekers in the EU currently are not sent back.
EU rules on deportations have been in place since 2009, but they are implemented only patchily by national governments. The EU has also been trying to develop common asylum standards since 1999, but national variations on asylum procedures still vary hugely.
The interior ministers also called for the more forceful pursuit of “readmission” agreements with third countries, mainly in Africa, compelling them to take back unwanted migrants and using development funding, visa policies and other instruments to coerce them into compliance.
But the EU already has 17 readmission agreements with various countries. They are only partly observed and often ignored. Asselborn played down the prospect of punitive measures to force greater observance.
“We won’t achieve anything with African countries by imposing sanctions,” he said.
Amid the flurry of activity and proliferation of emergency EU meetings, policy-makers appear to be groping towards a form of joined-up measures. But the delivery is struggling to keep up with the speeches.
“To believe that once you make a decision that this is already reality, you just have to be [on Lesbos] to see that, of course, a lot of things are lacking,” said Faymann.
The home secretary, Theresa May, welcomed the fact that the emphasis of Thursday’s meeting was on deterring and excluding migrants as well as on measures to beef up the EU’s external borders.
“We need to ensure that we break the link between people making a dangerous journey to Europe and being able to stay in Europe … We should be sending economic migrants back to their countries of origin. It’s why we need to crack down on those who are abusing our asylum system.”
Britain takes no part in common EU asylum policies and is the only country in the EU declining to contribute to the new quotas system sharing refugees. But as has become customary, May lectured the Europeans about putting their house in order. “On returns we need to see Europe upping its game, and we stand ready to support that,” she said.
Source: The Guardian