Refugee crises – Five months to save the EU.

Situation getting out of hand

Slovenian Prime Minister Cerar told reporters as he arrived at the recent summit on the Western Balkan migration route: “If we don’t deliver some immediate and concrete actions on the ground in the next days and weeks, I believe that the whole European Union will start to fall apart”.

Cerar’s doomsday prediction may be a bit premature but if the EU fails over the next five months to end the present chaos, his statement may not be far off the mark. The inflow of migrants may well slacken over the coming months as winter sets in: the EU must use this breathing space to get ahead of the curve.

The Commission (EC) has launched a number of new and courageous initiatives – some have been adopted. More are still under examination. But, clearly, problems have increased at a much faster pace than solutions.

A key focus has been on how to rescue the EU-system based on Schengen and the Dublin Regulation. The European Council has, by an unprecedented majority decision that still causes acrimony, agreed to redistribute 160,000 refugees. But when close to 50,000 refugees reach Greece each week, even efficient redistribution cannot solve the problem. And the outcome of the recent Polish elections will make it even harder to obtain the necessary majority in the Council to introduce a permanent distribution system.

However, we will have to introduce some redistribution in order to bring the Dublin system  back into operation as a pre- condition for the survival of Schengen – as events in recent weeks- including at the Austrian-German border – clearly demonstrate. But there is no chance of advancing on redistribution unless the present flow of migrants into the EU, particularly people who do not need protection, is substantially reduced.

Several plans and proposals are on the table that could change the situation, if implemented:

Reinforcement of FRONTEX

Since May member states have agreed to increase the human and financial resources made available to FRONTEX. The beefing up of its naval operations in the Mediterranean has resulted in a significant fall in deaths among migrants at sea. But whether FRONTEX operations so far have significantly reduced the numbers arriving is another question. There remains a lack of resources. Member states have been slow in responding to FRONTEX’s demand for staff. The agency needs greater freedom to concentrate resources where the greatest needs exist – in practice where member states themselves are unable to control the EU’s external border. FRONTEX also has an important role to play in increasing the efficiency of “hotspots” (in Italy and Greece), where genuine migrants are registered. It also helps with the rapid return  to their countries of origin of people who are in no need of protection. Extra staff will however not suffice if migrants are free to leave the hotspots before examination of their case is concluded and their point of destination determined.  This needs to change.

Cooperation with third states, in particular Turkey.

Eighty percent of the migrants now arriving in the EU transit through Turkey. Joint frontier controls, including exchange of intelligence, are therefore vital. For political reasons Greece might not want to get involved in joint sea patrols with Turkey. This is where FRONTEX could step in.

Reinforced EU-Turkey cooperation on migration is a win-win relationship, going far beyond any short-term political advantage President Erdogan might obtain. Turkey knows that a rapid end to the war is unlikely and their wish to see the creation of a buffer zone inside Syria is further from reality than ever, now Russia has entered the conflict. With more than 2m refugees, the solidarity of the Turkish people is cracking and outside help desperately needed.

Turkey is asking for at least €3bn from the EU and a year’s advance in the programme for visa-free access to the EU – initially foreseen for 2017. Similarly, the EU wants to advance the 2017 date for a planned change  in the Turkey-EU repatriation agreement – making it possible to send back illegal immigrants – to include all people arriving from Turkey and not just Turkish nationals. The recently agreed action plan advances these dates by one year – and crucially commits Turkey to strengthen the interception capacity of its Coast Guard as well as fighting criminal networks involved in the smuggling of migrants.

If fully implemented, the EU-Turkish action plan could be a game changer. However, it cannot stand on its own. Not only Turkey but also Lebanon and Jordan are overwhelmed by the inflow of refugees and need urgent assistance. The question of the possible relocation of a significant number of refugees (UNHCR is requesting Europe to take 200,000) is also on the table.

On 11-12 November EU leaders meet colleagues from African countries in Valetta to discuss how both sides can deliver tangible action to address the root causes of irregular migration and deliver rapid return. The EU has already set aside funding to provide its part of the bargain. The European side will also have to offer assurances that the present legal immigration of Africans into Europe can continue and will not be replaced by Syrian refugees. After all, remittances from African workers in the EU back to their home-countries today exceed the amount of development aid.

The elements of a solution are on the table. It “simply” takes political courage to turn them into reality:  failure to act could be a catastrophe.

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