The incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen has announced her proposed team of Commissioners to make up the College for the next five years, along with the “mission” she bestows on each of our aspiring heroes, ready to save Europe. A furore has erupted over the unfortunately named “Protecting Our European Way of Life” portfolio, with concern centring on the rather, let us say, fascistic connotation of the expression.
The outrage is a delayed reaction: the term was already used in the list of six priorities published by von der Leyen in July, and it also covered migration. The difference then was that point one under this heading was rule of law – and too right. If there is a threat against which we need protecting, it is the demagogues (the external and internal) who undermine the rule of law in Europe.
In this week’s document, the description of the mission for Greece’s nominee, Margaritis Schinas, should he choose to accept it, now incorporates immediately, paragraph one and two, some unpleasant language on migration, which apparently generates “legitimate fears and concerns” and is presented as a threat to security. Similarly, in the Home Affairs Commissioner’s mission, the talk is of “challenges” and “concerns” of Europeans. This framing is immediately othering in that it sets up oppositions between Europeans and migrants, security and the threat of people on the move, slightly absurd given that it was written in Brussels (probably?), a city where over 40% of the residents were born outside Belgium and are therefore migrants, including possibly the person writing the text. (Yes, mobile EU citizens are also migrants.)
Language matters and the title will have to go – the European Parliament will not let it pass and should also look at some of the other language. Here is a suggestion for an alternative title: Protecting Our European Values.
This change would root the Commission’s work firmly in the Treaties, appropriately as the Mission for the Commission as a whole is to defend the Treaties. A reminder of the values as per Article 2 TEU: The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
Protecting Our European Values
The row about titles should not detract from the more important questions of the people proposed and the strategic direction indicated by the mission descriptions. The European Parliament will start its hearings now to test the nominees; legally, it can reject the College as a whole, although this is the nuclear option. Generally, Parliament has preferred to show political power by insisting on one sacrifice each time, effected by questioning and exposing unacceptable candidates who are then withdrawn. This time, the obvious candidate to go is László Trócsányi, particularly as he has the Neighbourhood and Enlargement portfolio. Parliament will surely see that destroying the one successful EU external policy (referring to Enlargement rather than Neighbourhood, obviously) would hardly be wise. The heart of accession policy is the promotion of rule of law and democracy, as per the Copenhagen Criteria, and Trócsányi’s record is somewhat lacking in this regard. It remains to be seen whether Hungary can actually provide an acceptable candidate, and in any case it would be wise to re-shuffle so Hungary’s Commissioner gets something where he can do less damage (it will surely be a he from a government in which just 1 of 14 ministers are female).
The European People’s Party, the centre-right, faced with criticism for its shameful harbouring of Fidesz has been gunning for the PDSR, the Romanian Social Democratic Party, arguing that if they get rid of Fidesz (thus losing a chunk of MEPs) then the PES, the centre-left grouping, has to act against the PDSR – a quid pro quo. The argument of equivalence doesn’t quite stand – the PDSR is bad in different more obvious ways – however this may play out as a demand for the withdrawal of Romanian nominee, Rovana Plomb. Romania could then turn to one of its many highly qualified technocrats or diplomats (to be preferred to a tainted PDSR MEP for example) – possibly opening up the chance of the Enlargement job?
The Asylum and Migration Team
Schinas, as one of eight vice presidents (three of which are executive) will “coordinate” on asylum and migration and will be responsible for integration. The day to day work on asylum matters will be managed by Ylva Johansson, Sweden’s nominee. This is an intriguing choice, a clever and tough politician who has been an effective minister in the related employment and social affairs arena. The North-South balance is good and the two Commissioners could probably start by generating understanding between themselves on what is wrong in the current system, i.e. Dublin.
There are another six Commissioners who should play a role in issues related to asylum and migration – including Commissioners for Equality (Dalli), Democracy and Demography (Šuica), and Cohesion and Reform (Ferreira). A collective approach could be useful: inform the work on legal migration and regularisation with the research on depopulation and ageing population envisaged under Democracy and Demography or with the work on the “sustainable development of Europe’s cities” under Cohesion and Reform, for example. Move it away from being a borders, security panic button issue.
Despite some of the language, ECRE maintains its position that the Commission faces a choice, and the right choice has not yet been closed off – nothing in the documents so far precludes the Commissioners from adopting a broader, realistic strategy and ending the overriding focus on prevention of arrivals. ECRE’s recommended eight immediate steps to change direction can still be taken.
Some of the language does not bode well though and could presage more anti-asylum, anti-refugee, anti-migration decisions justified by reference to the “public” by policy makers who will not own their choices. This would not be the “fresh start” mentioned.
The mission for the Home Affairs Commissioner includes the preparation of a Pact on asylum and migration and looking at the asylum rules. Again, there is room for the right choices. A Pact could focus on creating a Grade A asylum system in Europe, meaning implementing the rules in place on reception, procedures, decision-making and so on, with the Commission and EASO supporting Member States to do so with carrot and stick, and with the necessary reform of Dublin moving forward in parallel. If any one Member State is not following the rules it creates significant suffering and exploitation of people and additional responsibilities (and political challenges) for the others. On the other hand, restarting a process of legal reform to push on with reforms that are based on denying access to protection would be a distraction. The emphasis on borders and return does not sound very fresh but there is still scope to add more.
Maintaining the Momentum on Rule of Law?
The rule of law issue now appear to be separated off from “Protecting our European Way of Life”, with the duo of Vĕra Jourevá, a Vice President, and Didier Reynders working on Values and Transparency and Justice respectively. This is not promising. Will a Commissioner from a country which is part of the V4, and who might feasibly want to return to a career there, make an effort to tackle rule of law problems in two fellow V4 countries? While some claim Timmermans, who was leading this work, was tough, that is not the impression of those directly affected, who feel let down already. Then, judging from personal or political party positioning, it seems unlikely that either will be a strong defender of the rights of those on the move or attacks on civil society and other undemocratic measures that result from the “fight against” migration. Neither though is constrained – positive choices still can be made in how they interpret their portfolios and the Justice portfolio in particular includes lots of tools to support rule of law (and provides a laugh out loud moment with a reference to creating a rule of law culture among European citizens – because citizens are of course the problem here.)
Capturing External Policies
Where the Commission President has attempted to tie the hands of incoming Commissioners with unequivocally bad missions is in external policies. There will be no respite from the push to undermine the EU’s embryonic foreign and security policy and established trade and development policies in the futile attempt to prevent people fleeing. The document resurrects the moribund Partnership Framework in the form of “comprehensive partnerships”. The idea is the same: use the supposed leverage in EU external policies to buy cooperation on migration. In an ECRE meeting, the PF was memorably described by a senior EU official as “complete rubbish” and it is a sorry sight to see it back. ECRE and others have written extensively about how counter-productive this approach is. Left to do what they are supposed to do external policies will help prevent forced displacement; instead, what is proposed here will create more of it. It would be interesting to know where this stuff is coming from – advisors around von der Leyen, who like her do not have foreign affairs experience? DG Home? Member States?
The Commissioners for international partnerships, crisis management and the HR/VP will have to resist these efforts but they go into their mandate with constraints.
Good News for the Defence Industry
A related issue concerns the great victor in the College formation process: France. As well as receiving a plum portfolio for a key Macron ally (plus vetoing all unwanted candidates for the Commission presidency and installing a very friendly President of the Council), the French Commissioner will sit on the European Defence Fund, or European Defence Industry Slush Fund to use its full name, with a whole new DG working on defence industry and space. Payday for the arms manufacturers. How this links to the misguided (and often unethical) treatment of migration as a security threat, including the militarisation of borders – a booming new sector for industry – will need to be closely monitored. There is a strong risk of grotesque Ping-Pong – sell arms to and train and equip security institutions in countries with dodgy governments (using EU money and operations if there is a migration link) which adds to displacement. When people flee towards Europe, beat them back at borders with your dual-use tech paid for by the EU.
A Fresh Start?
The conclusion is that despite some unfortunate titles and framing, the potential for positive action remains – and not least in the areas of asylum and migration. Politicians like to rush in to do something easily communicated to the public that will make their name. But reflection and calm choices are needed rather than another round of pointless “solutions” to the challenge of migration. The Commissioners have five years, far longer than most ministers get at national level. The plans include frequent references to the importance of implementation and the Commissioners would be advised to consider how to use the political and financial power, expertise and experience of the Commission to implement, reforming only where needed (Dublin), and to make progress on safe and legal channels and inclusion as also highlighted throughout, thus making asylum work in Europe. Cool heads and courageous choices are needed for a fresh start.
Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Secretary General for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)
Despite the change of government in Italy the stand-offs on the Med continue. With the Ocean Viking awaiting a safe port for disembarkation, there are no operational civilian rescue vessels in the Central Mediterranean.
After 11 days at sea, Malta allowed the rescue vessel Alan Kurdi to disembark the five remaining people it rescued in the Mediterranean last week. The German NGO Sea-Eye, which operates the ship, had filed a judicial protest calling on the Maltese Prime Minister and the Commander of the Armed Forces to coordinate the disembarkation. They reportedly revoked the protest in exchange for being allowed to disembark. Eight out of thirteen people had already been disembarked in previous days for medical reasons including attempted suicide. Two EU member states agreed to accept those rescued.
Malta's armed forces (AFM) airlifted a 9-month pregnant woman and her husband from the rescue vessel Ocean Viking. The ship, which is operated jointly by the NGOs Doctors Without Borders and SOS MEDITERANNEE is still carrying 82 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean in the course of the last week. After the ship rescued 50 people from a rubber boat off the Libyan coast the crew took in another 34 people rescued by a German sailboat. The Norwegian-flagged ship appealed to Malta and Italy for a safe place of disembarkation but is still waiting to be assigned.
“With no rescue ship currently in the area to save lives off the Libyan coast, our ship that is perfectly able to assist must not be held up for days while men, women and children continue to flee Libya across the central Mediterranean with no humanitarian rescue assets present”, SOS MEDIERANEE warned.
The rescue vessel Sea Watch 3 is still blocked in the port of Licata, Sicily, for over 70 days. The crew demands Europe to step up and support the new Italian government in its new course on migration, which has not yet ushered in substantive policy change towards civilian sea rescue organisations.
Although demands by the new government coalition partner, the Democratic Party, stirred up hopes for a less hostile migration policy, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte promised to remain "even more rigorous on illegal immigration than the previous government". He urged EU states to create an "automatic system" on burden-sharing, so that if 100 refugees were to arrive in Italy, he could be sure that other states would take their fair share. He also announced penalties for those EU states who do not participate in the redistribution of those arriving.
Ongoing discussions between Italy, Malta, France and Germany are addressing stand-off situations on the Med. According to Missing Migrants 929 migrant deaths have been recorded in the Mediterranean in 2019.
For further information:
- ECRE, MED: Silver Lining Looms on the Horizon while NGOs Endure Salvini’s ‘Final Blow’, September 2019
- ECRE, Deaths and Standoffs on the Med Reinforce Calls for State-led SAR, August 2019
- ECRE, Mediterranean: Deaths, Rescues and Political Manoeuvres Continue, June 2019
- ECRE, Last Breath of Operation Sophia Should Push Coalition of the Willing, March 2019
- ECRE, A Contingency Plan for Disembarkation and Relocation, January 2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” to Europe for Syrian refugees, unless a safe zone is established in Northern Syria. He also complained over disproportionate spending and insufficient support from Europe to Turkey. The German Ministry of Interior at the same time calls on Greece to step up repatriations to Turkey and do more to stop “illegal” crossings from Turkey to Greece.
According to Turkish media, Erdogan warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Turkey would be unable to deal with refugees from the fighting around Idlib in Northwestern Syria, and stated that Turkey has already spend 40 billion USD while the support from Europe was limited to 3.3 billion USD. According to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Mass insurances have been made that Europe is “honoring its parts of the EU-Turkey deal, and we have to assume Turkey is too."
A spokesperson for the German Ministry of Interior under the controversial Horst Seehofer stated that: "We urgently need to make progress in small repatriations to Turkey, to improve the deteriorating conditions at certain hot spots on the islands." In his response to Erdogan the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis states that Turkey: “cannot threaten Europe and Greece on the question of refugees to try and obtain more money…” Since the EU Turkey statement was agreed in March 2016, 1904 Syrians arriving to Europe from Turkey have been returned, while 24,348 have been settled in EU countries.
Meanwhile the conditions in the Greek hot spots hosting continues to deteriorate and on Wednesday the governor of the reception and identification center in Moria, Lesvos, resigned at a time where the center was holding 10,000 people, four times its capacity.
Turkey is the number one host country for refugees in the world and currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and the pressure for their return is increasing.
On 6 September 2019, the Hungarian Government announced it would extend the “state of crisis due to mass migration” until 7 March 2020 to protect the country's security and borders.
To justify this extension, the Government referred to the 7,000 irregular border crossing attempts that have been registered since the beginning of the year as well as to the “critical situation in Serbia and the thousand illegal migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina and some 30,000 migrants in Greece”. It further argued that, without Hungary’s southern fences and border control activities, the country would face a similar scenario to the so-called 2015 “migration crisis” and become the main transit route of irregular migration.
The “state of crisis” was introduced into Hungarian law in September 2015. While it first applied to counties bordering the neighbouring countries such as Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, it was extended to the entire territory of Hungary on 9 March 2016. Since then, special rules apply both to third-country nationals irregularly entering and/or staying in Hungary as well as to asylum seekers. This includes granting law enforcement authorities with increased powers, as the police is authorised to push back across the border fence irregularly staying migrants who wish to seek asylum in the country, without any legal procedure or opportunity to challenge this measure. In this regard, the Government’s announcement reiterated that law enforcement authorities are entitled to “take all effective measures” against persons entering or residing irregularly in the country.
Furthermore, during the state of crisis, applications for international protection can only be submitted in the transit zones, with the exception of those staying lawfully in the country. The asylum procedure in the transit zones has thus become a regular procedure since March 2017, while the use of the border procedure has been suspended. This means that asylum seekers, except unaccompanied children below the age of 14, are detained in the transit zones for the whole duration of their asylum procedure.
Other provisions of the Hungarian Asylum Act are also suspended during the state of crisis and the rights of asylum seekers’ are seriously limited. The content of material reception conditions for example is limited to accommodation and food provisions in reception facilities, while asylum seekers have no access to the labour market and financial support such as travel allowances or reimbursement of educational expenses are suspended.
The Government’s announcement to extend the state of crisis follows the recent Government Decree which establishes a National General Directorate for Immigration (Országos Idegenrendészeti Főigazgatóság) as of 1 July 2019 under the management of the Police. The Directorate is thus governed by the Police Act and is responsible for immigration and asylum-related tasks, which means that they now fall under the responsibility of the police.
For further information:
*This information was first published by AIDA, managed by ECRE.
The German government’s commissioner for integration, Annette Widmann-Mauz (CDU), announced that the integration of refugees into the German labour market over the last four years was more successful than predicted by experts. However, only 13% employed are female and two thirds earned below the low-wage threshold in 2018.
Among asylum-seekers from the main countries of origin (Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran), 399,000 are employed. Additionally, there is an increasing trend of companies providing vocational trainings to refugees. More than half of the refugees employed are working as skilled personal but the number of unskilled labour is still too high, says Widmann-Mauz highlighting the importance of providing additional training to refugees to offer qualifications.
Die Linke, the German left party, criticised the positive appraisal of the numbers. Two-thirds of those employed full-time earned less than the low-wage threshold in 2018. The number of unemployed persons in the context of forced migration increased by 6,6 per cent in comparison to the previous year. “Integration does not work if people are exploited as low-wage workers”, a spokesperson from Die Linke commented.
The Commissioner for integration concedes that there is room for improvement, especially in supporting female refugees to enter the labour market. Only 13% of those employed are female, despite being motivated to work and having similar levels of education. She calls for improved part-time models.
REPORTS & NGO ACTIONS
As EU-wide figures on first instance decisions on asylum applications during the first half of 2019 are expected to be made available soon by Eurostat, national statistics on first instance decisions from selected countries covered by AIDA, managed by ECRE, illustrate key trends for this year.
Statistics on negative decisions merit particular consideration and analysis. In the first six months of 2019, Germany issued more than 50,000 negative decisions, France issued 43,398 and Italy 36,573.
Not all negative decisions point to an asylum seeker’s need of international protection, however Asylum applications may be rejected as unfounded or manifestly unfounded after an assessment of their substance, or may be dismissed as inadmissible pursuant to one of the grounds laid down in Article 33(2) of the recast Asylum Procedures Directive. These grounds have been differently transposed across the continent and are used at varying degrees in national practice.
In absolute numbers, most inadmissibility decisions during the first six months of the year were issued by Switzerland (1,829), Belgium (1,793), Austria (1,383) and Sweden (1,356). Germany is also likely to account for a large number of inadmissibility decisions, although these are not disaggregated from withdrawals and other decisions.
Comparing inadmissibility to in-merit rejections in the different countries, however, it appears that Malta, Poland and Slovenia delivered more inadmissibility decisions than rejections on the merits in the first half of 2019. In contrast, France and Greece made limited use of inadmissibility concepts and Cyprus did not use them at all during that period.
The distinction between merit- and admissibility-related negative decisions does not appear in Eurostat statistics, since both categories are grouped under “rejection” statistics. This leads to a distortion of asylum authorities’ decision-making record and recognition rates. According to Eurostat figures, for example, the recognition rate for nationals of Syria was 50% in the first half of 2019, as “rejection” figures include a significant number of inadmissibility decisions.
As regards positive decisions on asylum applications, Germany continues to lead in absolute numbers with 39,682 decisions granting a protection status. France issued 17,447 positive decisions, Greece granted 11,223 and Italy 9,200.
The dominant forms of international or national protection granted in positive decisions continue to vary from one country to another. Malta, Cyprus, Portugal and Romania continue to grant subsidiary protection over refugee status in most positive decisions. Greece, Austria, the United Kingdom and Slovenia, on the other hand, have mainly issued refugee status.
For further information:
*This information was first published by AIDA, managed by ECRE.
On 10 September 2019, UNHCR announced the launch of a transit mechanism for evacuating refugees and migrants stuck in detention centres in Libya to Rwanda. The evacuation programme is the outcome of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the UN Agency, the Government of Rwanda and the African Union to address the Libyan emergency.
Initially, the evacuation will concern 500 people, including children and youth at risk, mainly from the Horn of Africa. The first flights should be scheduled for the following weeks and according to the UNHCR transfers will be conducted on voluntary basis. People transferred to Rwanda will face a variety of scenarios including resettlement programmes, return to a country of first asylum or home country if considered safe, or authorization to stay in the East African country.
UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, Babar Baloch, called the agreement a “life-line” solution. “This is an expansion of the humanitarian evacuation to save lives,” said Baloch. “The focus is on those trapped inside Libya. We’ve seen how horrible the conditions are and we want to get them out of harm’s way”.
On September 12, a group of 98 vulnerable refugees including 52 unaccompanied children were evacuated from Libya to Italy, the third humanitarian evacuation to the country in 2019. “Today we have taken 98 people to safety, but this is still only a small number of the thousands who need such help. There are still some 3,600 refugees in detention centres. We urgently need to find solutions for them, as well as thousands more vulnerable refugees living in urban areas,” said Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR Chief of Mission for Libya.
The evacuation programme is part of the UNHCR commitment to move asylum-seekers and refugees out of Libya. Since 2017, more than 4,400 people had been evacuated through different plans including the Emergency Transit Mechanisms in Niger and Romania.
For further information:
The Trump administration can start implementing a ‘safe-third-country’ policy that denies asylum requests to people who have travelled through another country, such as Mexico, without seeking protection.
By a vote of 7-2, the justices said the administration can enforce the rule announced in July while a legal challenge is still on-going. They did not explain the reasoning behind their decision, which came after a District Judge had initially blocked the new rule from taking effect in late July, saying "it is inconsistent with the existing asylum laws." A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed that order, ruling it only applied in California and Arizona. Another intervention from the District judge was again overturned early this week.
A record number of Central American families have sought asylum in the United States. The Justice Department says there are more than 436,000 pending cases. According to the new rule, they can only claim asylum in the U.S. if their asylum claims in the country they transited has been rejected.
If asylum seekers are believed to face grave danger in their country of origin, their deportation can still be halted under the Convention Against Torture Non-refoulement principle. This “withholding of removal” is a lesser status that blocks their deportation but does not put them on a path to legal U.S. residency.
Dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “the rule the Government promulgated topples decades of settled asylum practices and affects some of the most vulnerable people in the Western Hemisphere — without affording the public a chance to weigh in.” The other dissenting judge commented “the Government implemented its rule without first providing the public notice and inviting the public input generally required by law.”
"We are looking at a potentially devastating situation at the southern border," Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union warned. “This is just a temporary step, and we’re hopeful we’ll prevail at the end of the day,” he said in a statement. “The lives of thousands of families are at stake.”
For further information:
Choose Respect: Together We Can Tackle Anti-Migrant Hate Speech. Hate speech against migrants and refugees is all too common, both online and in the real world. But it isn’t always easy to know how to react effectively – and it’s even harder to respond in a way which changes attitudes. In the run-up to elections, politics is a frequent topic of debate. But if the discussion turns nasty – either around the dinner table or on your social media feed – here are some tips to help you make a constructive contribution to a more positive discourse.
- 19 September 2019, Nijmegen (NL), Workshop on Legal Implications of European Trends in the Externalisation of Migration Management, Dutch Association for Migration Research, register by 12 September 2019.
- 19 September 2019, Geneva: Book Launch: International Migration Law, Graduate Institute, Global Migration Centre,
- 21-22 October 2019, Brussels, SHARE Network Conference: Expanding Resettlement across Europe: From Policy to Practice, register by 20 September 2019
- 23-24 October 2019, Brussels, ECRE Annual General Conference, register by 15 September 2019
- 28 October 2019, The Hague, Farewell Lecture Tineke Strike, T.M.C. Asser Institute
- 8-9 November 2019, Sevilla, Advanced ELENA Course on International protection in Europe: persistent challenges and litigation opportunities, ECRE, registration by 26 September 2019
CALLS FOR PAPERS & OPEN CALLS