In European migration politics, the governments of the so-called “Visegrad Group” or V4 – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia– have set themselves apart with their consistently strong stance against EU refugee policy over the past few years. The four strongly oppose a quota distribution system collectively and take a harsh tone against both Brussels’ migration policy and people seeking asylum in their national media. (For an example, read “Will Fear of Refugees Become the Status Quo in Czech Politics?”). As the European Commission takes steps to potentially punish three of the countries for refusing to follow a specific EU resettlement policy, the countries show no sign of backing down. But is there room for compromise?
Drawing a line in the sand
The European Commission announced it was taking the first step in infringement proceedings against three of the four Visegrad states –Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic – for breaching Council decisions regarding relocation of people seeking international protection or asylum from Greece and Italy. Slovakia, who has legally challenged the relocation order and only accepts candidates based on strict preferences, has faced criticism but no threats of infringement (yet). Although Visegrad-adjacent Austria has also refused to accept any transfers of people, they are also off the hook in this case because they promised to accept 50 people in May 2017, according to an EC report on resettlements.
The countries implicated have all separately reaffirmed their intention to defy any resettlement plan, despite the Commission’s warning of infringement. Warsaw quickly issued a statement in response the announcement, calling the Commission’s actions premature in light of pending cases with Slovakia and Hungary at the ECJ, stating, “Poland stands ready to plead its case before the Court of Justice.” Just last week, presidential frontrunner of the ANO 2011 party and current deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš told the Czech website Parlamentní listy: “As I said, I do not want a single refugee in the Czech Republic, not even temporarily.” And Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, connected his fight against resettling refugees to his ongoing efforts to stifle George Soros, telling students at a Hungarian cultural festival in Romania that Soros has been “using his money, people and institutions to transport migrants into Europe.” In the same speech, he said that Hungary would continue to endeavor to offer a “calm, Christian life” to its inhabitants and “will not take in people who raise the concern in us that they will change our cultural identity.”
These public statements from Visegrad leadership are clear about what (or rather, who) they don’t want. But what do they offer as an alternative for handling migration on the European level?
What does Visegrad Want?
On July 19th, the Visegrad Group met in Budapest and issued a Joint Statement on Migration that outlined their position- not just what they stand opposed to, but what they offer as an alternative. In it, they reaffirm their commitment to a joint “consensus-based European solution” to dealing with migration. For the V4, the essential thing is to divide people seeking asylum from what they call “economic migrants”, a determination that they maintain should be made outside of EU territory but with the assistance of member states. Further, they write that any relocation schemes must be strictly voluntary, and the overall focus should be on preventing people from leaving their countries and entering Europe in the first place. The entire letter can be read here.
The tone of the letter is significantly subdued in comparison to what leading politicians have been telling their populations regarding asylum and Brussels, but that’s no reason to discard it. Let’s take a look at some of the key proposals and whether they are practical and further, whether they point to any areas that could lead to a compromise between the Visegrad Group and Commission.
1. Make asylum determinations outside of Europe
We believe that the precondition of any efficient strategy related to mixed migratory flows is to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and economic migrants. The necessary assessments have to be completed outside the territory of the EU in administrative centres protected and supplied with the assistance and contribution of the EU and its Member States.
In order to deal with asylum “at the roots”, as they write, it is necessary to move the asylum process outside of EU territory. This proposal is a familiar one, as can be seen by our discussion of former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s policy platform. There are several problems with this idea, but also an area of possible compromise.
One problem is the assumption inherent in this proposal that people migrating to Europe belong to either the category of asylum seekers or “economic migrants.” This division is confusing and artificial. In Europe, as all over the rest of the world, people migrate for a variety of reasons outside of seeking asylum. They may be seeking better opportunities and jobs, but they also might be hoping to reunite with a family member or loved one, access educational opportunities, gain medical treatment, or for any number of other reasons. They may not be able to access protection under the refugee convention, for instance, because authorities believe there are other safe areas to flee within their home country, but this doesn’t make their motives necessarily economic in nature. And importantly, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not entitled to other forms of protection.
A second, stickier issue is the notion of completing assessments of people’s asylum claims outside EU territory. Nothing in EU or international law forbids the possibility of a state granting people asylum from a distance outside that state’s borders. In fact, countries do this all the time, often aided by government officials or NGOs within a country to identify people that can be transferred to another country to get protection.
The problem comes when this is posed as the only way of granting asylum. “Sequencing is crucial,” write the Visegrad Group, but legally, they have bound themselves to also accept refugees who apply from within their territory (as have all other European countries). The 1951 Refugee Convention and its follow up the 1967 Protocol both define refugees as someone who:
“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
The “outside their country” aspect is crucial. If countries were only willing to offer asylum to people who applied without leaving their own countries, then people would have to remain in a country where they are at risk while waiting for an answer- possibly facing death or torture. All V4 countries have signed both the 1951 Convention and its 1967 protocol (see UNHCR’s list of signatories for more details.) This binds them to accepting applications of asylum on their own territory, and to not “refouling” people (sending them back to places where they face persecution.) This definition of asylum as allowing people to leave their national borders to safety is also included within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (The “seek” part is also important: it means you are entitled to ask for asylum, even if you don’t ultimately receive it.)
It should be clear that people needn’t remain in their own countries to seek asylum, and that the members of the Visegrad Group are obligated to process asylum claims of people who make it to their territory and ask for protection, just as the rest of Europe is. But so long as this is guaranteed, a compromise could see more asylum decisions being reached in sending countries, such as through embassies or special centers for that purpose, without excluding the right to seek asylum in the traditional way as well. This could indeed prevent people who have no viable claim for asylum from making perilous journeys while expediting the process for people who do have viable claims.
However, a major concern would be to ensure that assessments carried out abroad comply with legal standards and aren’t a way of moving the asylum process out of sight and out of mind.
2. Secure external EU borders
We need to be able to fully protect the external borders of the European Union. At the same time, we need to remove internal border controls. We need to make sure that no one can avoid being properly identified and registered before entering the territory of the EU.
This proposal also offers plenty of room for agreement with the rest of Europe. The idea of strengthening external border controls while providing free movement within the EU is an aspiration that is nearly universally shared. This can be seen by the dramatic budget and staffing increase over the last years for the European border agency Frontex, headed out of Warsaw, and increasing funds for Italy to manage asylum assessments (and deportations.)
However, the implication that everyone can be “properly identified” before entering the EU is problematic for a few reasons. First, as discussed above, its a right under international and European law to seek asylum in other countries. This right is not limited to those who are “properly identified.” In other words, providing ID is not a prerequisite to seeking asylum, and attempting to stop people from entering because they cannot provide ID might violate international law.
Throughout the asylum application process people are grilled on their stories and asked to provide as much evidence as possible to back up their claims of persecution and country origin. But it must be recognized that, when fleeing war or persecution, it is sometimes not possible to bring full documentation. For others, these important papers might be lost in transit. Still others might be stateless, in which case they may never have had proper identification documents to begin with. Any of these circumstances do not take away a person’s right to ask for protection.
3. Use aid to discourage “pull factors” and prevent people from leaving
We need a sustainable European solution with the long-term objective of a proactive involvement of the EU and its Member States in the most affected Third Countries of origin and transit including improving their living conditions.
The idea of preventing migration through increasing development aid is an unproven concept that has nevertheless been pushed by people as diverse as Jean Luc Melenchon in France and Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. The problem with the idea is that the EU already spend billions in development aid, but this aid may not reach people most vulnerable to persecution and war. Not to mention the fact that it does not address pull factors such as family reunification. Nevertheless, if aid is indeed aimed at improving living conditions and not at preventing people from leaving their country (as everyone is entitled to) then it is hard to see major downsides to ramping it up.
At the same time, there would appear to be room for improvement in this area from the states proposing the aid increase. The EU has targets for development aid to lower income countries known as “Official Development Assistance” (ODAs). In the latest Commission report on the subject (found here) it was noted that although progress has been made, the EU has not reached its collective goal of setting aside .7% of Gross National Income (GNI) for development aid.
The Visegrad states fall well below this goal, as well as below the less ambitious target set for countries who had joined the EU after 2002 (as all four Visegrad states did). The target for these countries was .33% of GNI, whereas all Visegrad states had reached between .12%-.14% in 2016.
So here too is an area of potential compromise: EU countries in general and Visegrad countries in particular could strive harder to reach their development assistance goals as part of an effort to improve living conditions in countries that currently experience high levels of emigration. But it should be remembered that development aid doesn’t end wars.
Can member states work together?
Looking at the migration policy proposed by the Visegrad states in Budapest, its possible to identify at least three areas where compromises should be possible:
1.) Provide additional means of applying for asylum from outside of the EU
2.) Continue to secure EU borders while supplying assistance for identification and registration of people seeking asylum at entry points to the EU
3.) Increase development aid, for instance, by getting closer to Official Development Assistance goals.
Interestingly, the viable parts of Visegrad’s migration platform all point to one thing: more money. There’s no doubt that providing more financial support up and down the asylum system can make a difference in how well the EU handles migration and asylum. But is it enough to replace the human aspect of accepting people into societies?
At the end of the day, no matter how much funding is offered and how many restrictions are applied, there are numerous people that are truly entitled to protection under laws agreed to in Europe for over half of a century, many of whom are already here. Increasing funds to prevent people from coming might be an area both sides can agree on, but it cannot possibly represent more than a partial solution to the current standoff over people already here and waiting for help.
Sources and Further Reading
Header image via Poland MFA on Flickr, http://bit.ly/2uumbVB (CC BY-NC 2.0)