Thursday 24. June 2021
#183 - June 2015


European policy on refugees is flawed


A border is not only the line, often arbitrary, that delimits an area over which there is sovereignty. A border is also an “in-between” place for meetings or holding a parlay.

Not only do we need to ensure we save as many lives at possible at sea, we also need to offer desperate people, fleeing violations of the most fundamental human rights, alternative safe channels into Europe. We shouldn’t just be waiting for the next terrible tragedy,” said Peter Balleis SJ, International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service last October.  Even since Lampedusa, the landmark event that stimulated awareness in Europe, European policy on refugees has not really changed, although a great many voices have been crying out for it, starting with that of Pope Francis in his important speech to the European Parliament on 25 November 2014:  “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery! The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance.”  Solidarity is lacking between the European Member States; there has been no discussion or any resolution of national differences in approach, so things are left the way they are; meanwhile human tragedies are repeating themselves, like that of the 700 people who drowned in the Mediterranean at the end of April – not counting the number of deaths along the routes of the transit countries, as happened very recently in Macedonia.


This recent new tragedy in the Mediterranean provoked a storm of protest, with demands for much-needed changes to European legislation in the area of asylum. The European Council meeting of 23 April adopted the ten-point plan that had been put forward by the Foreign and Home Affairs Ministers who had met a few days earlier in Luxembourg. Some points of this plan deserve a few words of explanation.


The first measure consists in reinforcing the operations of FRONTEX, Triton and Poseidon, and extending their area of operation. This extension of the operational zones would be all the more welcome if the outcome were to be that more people would be rescued at sea. However, it is still being debated whether or not such rescue operations fall within the FRONTEX mandate. For the time being these operations are mandated to manage national borders, not to save lives. The European Union should follow the example of the Italian operation Mare Nostrum and put in place a wide-scale search and rescue mission. This cannot be the responsibility of a single Member State but must be a European operation.


The Action Plan then proposes (see points 2 and 3) a systematic effort to capture and destroy the vessels used by the traffickers. To stop the activities of traffickers, the European Union should above all open up ways to obtain legal access to protection in Europe. Together with other Christian organisations, JRS Europe published last November a document offering a ‘tool box’, i.e. a package of measures that include: a substantial increase in procedures for the relocation of refugees who are unable to find protection in the area where they arrived; facilitating and liberalising procedures for families to reunite when their relatives are already living in a European country; introduction of a 'humanitarian visa' to facilitate access to asylum procedures; simplification – for the time being – of the conditions for obtaining a visa, a measure that targets certain groups of asylum seekers, notably those who are vulnerable.


Point Five of the Action Plan is directed particularly at Italy, as it requires that Member States rigorously ensure the fingerprinting of all migrants. This requirement clearly illustrates the flaw of the 'Dublin Regulation'. Fingerprinting will not resolve this flaw, which obliges countries to send asylum seekers back to remake their application for asylum in a country where they do not wish to be. What usually happens is that asylum seekers are sent back to European countries situated on the outside borders of Europe, countries that often have inadequate asylum procedures. These refugees become stuck in countries where they cannot obtain access to protection.  Therefore the decisions taken at European level should provide for relevant alternatives to the Dublin procedures and should really take into account the future hopes of the asylum seekers.


Two other points in the Action Plan (points 6 and 7) recommend further thinking on the subject and the setting up of a pilot programme for an emergency relocation system.  At least these are a few steps moving in the right direction. However, “thinking about it” and “pilot programme” is far too little. What is needed is more “extraordinary” action. The European Union must effectively implement what is already contained in its legislation on asylum, and it must implement without delay the measures we have described above.


European countries cannot close their eyes to the major crises which, right on the doorstep of Europe, are the cause of massive and dramatic population movements, followed by demands for protection, from countries such as South Sudan, the Congo or Nigeria, or especially Syria, not to mention Ukraine.  It is a pity that Europe tends to view these events only through the lens of migratory “flow”, of “influx” of asylum seekers, and is only willing to confront these situations in terms of border management.


Not only is there the purely political difficulty of exerting real effort to drafting a set of measures on asylum that would not only match the needs of the situation but also comply with respect for human rights. A good part of the flawed nature of the currently valid asylum procedures can be laid at the door of the ambiguous notion of what constitutes a national border. This is because a border is not only the line, often arbitrary, which delimits an area over which we might be the owners and have sovereignty; a border is also an “in-between” place for holding meetings or a conversation. The truth of this is borne out by all those people (and there are many of them) who, despite the currently valid laws – and often by acting contrary to them – practise the beautiful political virtue of hospitality.


Jean-Marie Carrière, sj

Europe Regional Director

Jesuit Refugee Service JRS



Translated from the original text in French

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.