The refugee policy of the EU and its member states faces complex challenges. It needs to reflect and reconcile the living conditions of potential migrants in their countries of origin, the costs and risks of the journey to Europe, and the asylum procedures and living environment in the prospective countries of destination. Not all these challenges could be resolved–or were even addressed–ahead of the EU summit at the end of June. However, some measures can be implemented in the short term that will pave the way for long-term solutions.
Specifically, the EU can commit more human and financial resources to assist asylum seekers in the EU countries where they initially arrive. The same applies to processing asylum claims, supporting the economic and social integration of officially recognized refugees, and returning unsuccessful applicants to their countries of origin.
Currently, well over half of asylum seekers arriving in the EU are not granted protected status—either because they cannot prove persecution or because they come from a country in which the EU believes they can live safely and securely (e.g., Syrian refugees in Turkey). Accordingly, it would not make sense to distribute all asylum seekers across the EU member states via an elaborate bureaucratic process. The introduction of binding quotas for redistribution of asylum seekers would in any case be politically unachievable in the EU. Nor would such quotas make any difference to the extreme pressure on the countries of first arrival. All proposals currently under discussion envisage distribution being restricted to asylum seekers who have a high likelihood of being granted refugee status, thus leaving the majority of current arrivals in the same small number of first-arrival countries.
The EU can, however, ease the burden on these countries by providing financial assistance and specialist staff to ensure that asylum claims are processed quickly and fairly. Similarly, the EU can take financial and logistical responsibility for repatriating failed asylum seekers, given that it is better able to negotiate and implement agreements with the countries of origin than individual EU member states. Lastly, the EU can provide financial support for the integration of recognized refugees in cases where EU member states accept them on a voluntary basis from the countries of first arrival. Germany, for example, could make a major contribution in this regard, while benefiting from a systematic Europeanization of the asylum system in the countries of first arrival that reduces the number of asylum seekers submitting an application in Germany.
Beyond its borders, the EU is already playing a major role in supporting refugees in Turkey. The EU is also working closely with various African states to manage migration and reduce irregular immigration to Europe, along with other objectives. In addition to development aid that helps improve local quality of life, a more collaborative approach includes providing more legal channels for labor migration from Africa to EU member states. Anyone who would like to see the "back door" of irregular migration closed would be best advised to open the "front door" to legal employment—thereby benefiting everyone.
All of this will make substantial demands on the EU budget, but at the same time relieve the financial pressure on the member states that have been most affected. The EU summit at the end of June turned out to be a missed opportunity to define a policy roadmap and choose to adequately finance a common asylum system going forward. In this way, the heads of state and government could have demonstratee that they are adopting sustainable European solutions in a policy area where relying on national solutions is bound to fail.
(Translated and slightly revised version of an op ed in the Tagesspeigel of June 27, 2018, titled “Die Europäisierung des Asylsystems”.)