Migration is in Europe’s DNA: Re-framing the debate on asylum and migration in Europe

IMG_2798Asylum and migration are issues which make the lack of a common European policy apparent. Asylum, emigration and immigration remain mostly a competence of the member states, as they are considered an issue of national sovereignty and mostly approached from a security perspective. Though harmonization of rules at EU level has been progressing over the past few years, progress towards a common policy towards asylum on the one hand, and legal migration on the other, are urgently needed.

At an event organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in cooperation with the European Security Roundtable, the liberal Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, painted a contrasted picture of the EU’s asylum and migration policy. The good news in the field of asylum and migration is the review of the European Asylum System. Finally, after 14 years of revision, the asylum regulation in Europe has been harmonized. With the introduction of the Common European Asylum System at the end of 2013 asylum seekers in Europe are guaranteed equal rights and uniform standards. Furthermore, special care will be granted to the most vulnerable such as unaccompanied minors and victims of human trafficking. Now, the main priority is the implementation of the new system in the member states. With the set up the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) member states will be supported in their endeavor to improve the asylum process, from the arrival of refugees, the asylum application process to the integration of people that have been granted asylum.

IMG_2892Further improvements are expected to be achieved by the Task Force Mediterranean, which was set up after the two consecutive tragedies in Lampedusa, where last October over 630 people drowned trying to cross the stretch of sea between Northern Africa and the Italian island. The images of the coffins at the harbor of Lampedusa haunt the Commissioner: “it was one of the strongest moments of my career”. The shock wave created by these images set in motion the creation of the Task Force and accelerated the adoption of EUROSUR. These new instruments aim at upgrading the information-exchange system for the management of the EU external borders and thus improving the fight against trafficking, smuggling and organised crime, while at the same time guaranteeing the protection and resettlement of refugees and migrants.

But, though the Commissioner is satisfied with the achievements in the field of asylum, she sees many challenges lying ahead. She recalled that five EU member states (DE, SE, FR, UK and IT) receive 70% of asylum requests. And member states on the external border of the EU are under great pressure to improve the management of border controls and the reception of refugees and migrants. Commissioner Malmström deplored the lack of political will to go further on the reform of the Dublin II Convention and declared that “in the future we need a wider choice on where to apply for asylum”. She also condemned the lack of solidarity or shared responsibility with regard to resettlement of refugees, but recalled that there are no political means on the European level to oblige member states to welcome more refugees, especially from Syria.

The Commissioner concluded by calling for further steps in the field of legal migration. In the context of an ageing population and the lack of skilled and unskilled labour in many sectors, Europe urgently needs “to open more legal channels”.

However, the topic of immigration has proven to be very divisive and has been the panacea of xenophobic political movements that unluckily set the agenda on these policies. Our panelists agreed with her on the need to fight this political rhetoric. IMG_2764Frank Engel MEP, strongly condemned the lack of solidarity of some member states and said that “migration cannot be regulated with fences, we need to make sure that it is possible to come to Europe legally”. Leon Prop, head of the EU office of the Red Cross, acquiesced by reminding all that “migrating is not a crime”, thus detention should only be used as a last resort. “I cannot think of another topic where public debate is only about negative impacts”, said Leon Prop. Markus Löning, former Commissioner for Human Rights of the Federal Republic of Germany, agreed and called upon a more comprehensive political debate “talking about people, not only about numbers and problems”. In his view political parties carry a responsibility to re-frame the debate around the benefits of migration and reception countries have to make sure that their schooling systems provide equal opportunities for all. Löning drew from his family’s experience, which migrated to and from Germany, to recall that “Europe is a continent of migration”. Indeed, as migration is in the DNA of Europe, the discourse should be governed by chances instead of fear.


Julie Cantalou