2.6.2015 | Von:
Jan Schneider
Marcus Engler

Current and Future Challenges - the EU's Common Responsibility

With the number of asylum applications on the rise, refuge and asylum have once again become a central issue of domestic politics in Germany. However, given the impact of international and EU regulations on asylum policies, Germany and other EU Member States cannot deal with the situation on their own. Common European solutions are necessary.

Papierboote mit der Aufschrift "SOS Europe" am Strand von San Sebastian, Spanien. - Aktion von Amnesty International

Some paper boats with the message 'SOS Europe' were placed by activists from Amnesty International organization in Sant Sebastia beach, in Barcelona, northeastern Spain, 22 April 2015.Amnesty International campaign on a beach in San Sebastian, Spain: Paper boats with the message "SOS Europe". (© picture-alliance/dpa)

The admission and reception of asylum seekers will remain a central political challenge in Germany. For 2015, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees expects to receive 450,000 asylum applications.[1] But the number of asylum claims is high in other EU Member States as well. In view of continuing conflicts at the margins of Europe, the number of people forced to leave their country of origin will probably remain high or rise even further. Germany's challenges are, at the same time, challenges for the EU, because there is a growing need for common European solutions in the current refugee crisis. Against this backdrop, the interests of the individual nation-states (which lead to efforts to attract "profitable" immigration, e.g. skilled labor migration) should take second place to the recognition of international and humanitarian responsibility. So far, it is less developed countries, located in the geographical neighborhood of crisis-torn states, that host by far the largest number of refugees. In addition to the individual right of asylum, Germany and the EU should therefore extend programs for the direct and collective admission of refugees, both temporarily and permanently. This mission raises a number of critical questions, which have yet to be resolved, e.g. about the fair distribution of asylum seekers, burden-sharing, and solidarity among Member States.

Currently, the major common European challenge regarding questions of asylum and refugee policy continues to be the comprehensive implementation of standards laid down in EU law, in the Geneva Refugee Convention, and the European Convention on Human Rights, in order to guarantee effective humanitarian protection in all Member States. In this respect, both the individual Member States and the EU as a whole have a great deal of responsibility for international refugees seeking protection. In this context, the Common European Asylum System II is a step in the right direction, because it promises to raise protection standards in those EU countries where they have previously been low.[2] At the same time, the growing number of migrants who perish while trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea discredit the European asylum and refugee protection system. According to calculations by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 22,400 people have already died in their attempt to cross the Mediterranean since 2000, more than 3,000 in 2014 alone (this constitutes 75 percent of all migrant deaths at worldwide maritime borders).[3] IOM data suggests that in the first four months of 2015 about 1,800 people have drowned in the Mediterranean in their attempt to reach Europe. On 18 April alone, around 800 migrants and refugees died when their overcrowded vessel capsized off the Libyan coast.

Search and Rescue Operations in the Mediterranean

After the maritime disaster near Lampedusa on 3 October 2013, in which more than 350 people lost their lives trying to reach Europe from the Libyan coast, the Italian government initiated the humanitarian sea rescue operation “Mare Nostrum.” For almost one year the Italian navy patrolled most of the southern Mediterranean and rescued more than 100,000 people, according to their own information.[4] Contrary to Italy’s request, the EU contributed only a small, symbolic amount of money to cover the expenses of the operation, which amounted to nine to ten million euros per month. Mare Nostrum ended in November 2014, and the EU set up a new border control operation in the Mediterranean Sea to replace it. Called "Triton," it is coordinated by the European border management agency Frontex. Triton is the most expensive and personnel-intensive operation in the history of Frontex, involving 21 Member States, 65 employees, a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros, and the appropriate equipment. Nevertheless, it cannot replace Mare Nostrum, because border control remains the operation’s focal point, and its humanitarian component is weaker.[5] Therefore, a central dilemma continues to exist for the EU: On the one hand, it wants to fulfill its humanitarian obligations by rescuing shipwrecked persons. On the other hand, the prevention of illegal entries continues to be of paramount importance. In fact, the rescuing mandate remains subordinate, because the primary function of Frontex is to secure the EU’s borders.[6]

Access to Refugee Protection in the EU

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees the right to humanitarian refugee protection. In the common asylum legislation, however, there is no mechanism that facilitates entry to EU territory for asylum seekers. Instead, the general visa provisions apply to asylum seekers as well. People seeking protection originate predominantly from countries whose citizens need a visa to enter the EU. Often, however, they do not meet the prerequisites to be issued a visa. Therefore, they have to try to enter EU territory illegally, and often risk their lives in doing so (see section on search and rescue operations). Increased controls of the EU’s external borders have aggravated this problem. A central challenge for the EU therefore lies in offering people who seek refuge safe access to humanitarian protection in Europe, including but not limited to the individual right of asylum.[7] Especially with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis, it seems necessary to create a temporary collective protection procedure at the EU level for the joint and coordinated admission of refugees.[8] Yet the majority of Member States lack the willingness to create such a status, and provide no avenues for protected entry for persons individually applying for asylum.

Such protected entry procedures, which would allow people to claim asylum in an embassy, or apply for a humanitarian visa, involve some risks, however: Officials working in consulates and embassies would need to conduct a sort of preliminary examination of the applicant’s right to asylum, without being trained to do this. It also remains unclear how politically persecuted persons could effectively get access to legal counsel and support. Particularly in times of large numbers of asylum claims, there is hardly any realistic chance that these approaches will be implemented.[9]

The coming years will reveal to what extent the EU is able to substantially extend the common resettlement program, which is coordinated in cooperation with UNHCR and aims at resettling recognized refugees living in overburdened third states to the EU. From 2010 to 2014, only about 5,000 resettlement places were offered EU-wide per annum, 90 percent of these by Member States that already have long-standing resettlement programs as a central instrument of refugee protection (UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark).[10] The European Agenda on Migration, adopted in May 2015, proposes the establishment of an EU-wide resettlement scheme which offers 20,000 places to "people in clear need of international protection". However, it is still not certain that all Member States will agree to such a measure.

Mutual Recognition of Asylum Decisions

The Common European Asylum System II provides a solid platform for the harmonization of asylum decision-making, accommodation and procedural standards. So far, however, EU Member States have made virtually no progress in the mutual recognition of residence permits: Persons entitled to either asylum or subsidiary protection may only reside in the country that granted protection. There is no mechanism for the mutual recognition of national decisions on asylum (and thus no mechanism for transferring the responsibility to protect) if a person granted some form of protection settles in another Member State. In accordance with the EU Qualification Directive, they can be issued an EU-wide permanent residence permit only after five years of residence,[11] and only under conditions which many find hard to meet (e.g. supporting themselves without recourse to public funds, having sufficient health insurance cover).

Fairness and Solidarity among Member States

Another challenge lies in the lack of intra-European solidarity when it comes to taking the necessary responsibility that a large number of people seeking protection implies. In fact, the Commission, Council and Parliament, referring to the principle of solidarity laid down in the EU Treaties, have repeatedly advocated a common asylum system that adheres to this principle.[12] However, in accordance with the reformed Dublin-III-Regulation, some Member States will continue to be disproportionally affected by refugee migration flows, whereas others hardly register any asylum claims at all.

The Regulation does not provide for mandatory burden and responsibility sharing. There is only an early warning mechanism, which is meant to detect any critical overloading of national asylum systems in advance, and to help deal with this situation in cooperation with the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) (see info box on EASO). When the strategic guidelines for the EU's domestic policy were passed in summer 2014, the EU Council once again stressed the need for European solutions to common challenges, as well as the principle of internal solidarity and fair burden-sharing.[13] This requires agreement on criteria that will determine, at least in theory, fair admission quotas. These will help to guarantee an equal sharing of responsibilities, e.g. through financial compensation for the admission of asylum seekers, similar to that provided since 2014 by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), for the resettlement of recognized refugees and their relocation within the EU.[14] The European Agenda on Migration, presented in May 2015, provides for the introduction of a quota system in the framework of which refugees from overburdened Member States at the EU's external borders can be relocated to other Member States. The Commission will draft a legislative proposal for a mandatory and automatically triggered relocation scheme by the end of 2015 which is supposed to "distribute those in clear need of international protection within the EU when a mass influx emerges". Furthermore, a common resettlement scheme is to be established. The idea of such a quota system is not supported by all Member States so that it is still not clear whether it will finally be implemented

Legal Migration, Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation

A decisive factor for future European asylum policy will be the extent to which the EU can take pressure off Member States' asylum systems, and initiate additional political measures to better differentiate between people seeking protection and other migrants. In this context, the eradication of causes of flight presents the most complex challenge. A promising approach is so-called mobility partnerships, agreement-based cooperations with selected third countries, which combine the goals of both migration policy and development policy. At best, mobility partnerships lead to a "triple win" situation:

(1) Third-country citizens are provided with a legal alternative to an asylum procedure and therefore a chance to temporarily reside in Europe;

(2) The countries of origin receive development support in their difficult transition period, with remittances and technology transfer fostering economic growth;

(3) Finally, mobility partnerships are an additional instrument to counteract skill shortages in European host countries.

In addition to migration and development-oriented policies, there is also a need for approaches driven by foreign, economic and trade policy. This means providing potential migrants with better information about existing legal channels of migration, e.g. for specialists and skilled workers. Better information may prevent illegal, dangerous and (because of the fees paid to smugglers) expensive attempts to enter the EU in order to claim asylum there.

Integrating Immigrants and Utilizing Their Potential

Like all EU States, Germany can expect to continue to be a destination for people seeking protection, and it should prepare for temporarily or even permanently hosting large numbers of refugees. In view of this, it makes sense to offer integration measures (such as language courses and vocational training) early on. It also makes sense to recognize the potential of immigration: aging societies like those of the EU should make greater efforts to utilize and promote the potential, talents and skills of refugees. This is because refugees are generally much younger than the local population, and may help to counteract skill shortages and overall demographic risks, under the condition of their successful integration into society. In this context, a central and ongoing challenge will be to maintain and strengthen the acceptance of refugee admission within the local population.

This text is part of the policy brief German Asylum Policy and EU Refugee Protection: The Prospects of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS).


Die Welt, 20 February 2015.
Bendel (2014), p. 40.
Brian/Laczko (2014), p. 20.
Grote (2014). Some EU Member States, including Germany, argued that the operation "Mare Nostrum" was an important pull factor for human smugglers and irregular immigrants, and served as a "bridge to Europe" (German interior minister de Maizière, Bundestag plenary protocol [Plenarprotokoll] 18/49 of 9 September 2014, p. 4487.
Following the ship disasters of April 2015 in the Mediterranean, the Frontex budget was tripled in order to enhance the rescue capacities.
Basaran (2014); Haarhuis (2013).
Moreno-Lax (2012b).
SVR (2014), p. 89.
Hein/de Donato (2012). The trend is running in the opposite direction: in the last few years, states such as Austria, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and most recently Switzerland, in 2012, have abolished procedures of this kind as the influx of asylum seekers has grown.
Bokshi (2013), pp. 8ff; Eurostat database, resettled persons [migr_asyresa].
Based on the Directive on the status of non-EU nationals who are long-term residents, third-country nationals may be issued a permanent residence permit. See Directive 2011/51/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of 11 May 2011 amending Council Directive 2003/109/EC to extend its scope to beneficiaries of international protection.
COM (2011) 835; Council of the European Union (2012): Council conclusions on a Common Framework for genuine and practical solidarity towards Member States facing particular pressures on their asylum systems, including through mixed migration flows. Outcome of proceedings of Council (Justice and Home Affairs) on 8 March 2012 (No 7485/12); European Parliament (2012): European Parliament resolution of 11 September 2012 on enhanced intra-EU solidarity in the field of asylum (2012/2032(INI)).
Conclusions of the European Council, session on 26 and 27 June 2014, Brussels (EUCO 79/14).
See the proposal for a model considering multiple factors to determine fair admission quotas in Schneider/Engler/Angenendt (2013), as well as its incorporation into a new institutional mechanism to detect (temporarily) overburdened asylum systems, outlined by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration in SVR (2014), pp. 88f.
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