Make it or break it: Immigration and the Future of the EU

“Europe faces many challenges, but that of migration could become the make-or-break one for the EU….Either we manage it, so others in Africa believe we are guided by values and believe in multilateralism, not unilateralism, or nobody will believe any longer in the system of values that has made us strong. That is why it is so important.” – German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a speech to the Bundestag

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Picture used with permission via Creative Commons license.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is barely 100 days into her fourth term, has until the end of the European Union summit to come up with a solution for what many EU countries view as a migrant crisis. She is being pressured to send migrants currently attempting entry into Germany back to the EU countries where they first entered the bloc, something Merkel has vehemently resisted. For a bit of background, in 2015, the Chancellor opened the German borders to over one million migrants at the request of Austria and Hungary who were inundated. This and subsequent decisions involving immigration have threatened to destroy her coalition government and have been blamed for the rise of the anti-immigrant AfD (Alternative for Germany) party. With elections pending in wealthy Bavaria, a southern state of Germany, the conservative CSU (Christian Social Union) finds itself pitted against the growing AfD movement.

According to Der Spiegel, every fifth person in Germany has an immigration background, including immigrants from other EU countries. Many news magazines identify this as the origin of Germany’s identity crisis. The bulk of Germany’s population is aging. Membership in Christian churches is shrinking. At the same time, migrants entering the country are young and most bring along Islam which is viewed as replacing Christianity as the majority religion in the country. Many citizens feel that the Heimat is under attack, and a popular conspiracy theory says Chancellor Merkel is in cahoots with leaders of other countries to swap out ethnic Germans and replace them with foreigners.

The term Heimat roughly translates in English to “homeland” and was avoided for years due to its association with Nazism but since has become a mainstay in German political speeches, although it should not be construed as a reference to Naziism in its contemporary usage. The less conservative political parties in Germany have seized the term in an attempt to win back their waning base. The term is a more difficult concept to explain outside German culture and language. German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently defined the term in a speech where he stated, “To understand and be understood, that is Heimat….Heimat is where we find meaning.”

In this internal EU battle, what does EU law state regarding asylum seekers? The EU Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is a body of laws that outlines minimum standard procedures for processing asylum applications. In theory and on paper, this looks like a humane solution to the conundrum of migrants arriving in the bloc. In reality, there is a patchwork of twenty-eight different asylum systems of varying efficacy. The majority of migrants enter the EU through Greece and Italy; however, they are not obligated to claim asylum in the first EU state they are able to reach. They are in theory allowed to continue on to another EU country and claim asylum there. A subsequent “Dublin regulation” does stipulate that an EU member state can return asylum seekers to the country of first entry to process their claim, provided that country has a functioning asylum system. This has led to a conflict between the northern and southern states in Europe. Greece and Italy are not financially healthy countries and Greece in particular has been noted by many agencies for detaining migrants in filthy, unventilated, and overcrowded centers, often without informing the migrants of the reason they are being detained. Greece has fewer than one thousand spaces available to tens of thousands of asylum seekers.

In a pivotal 2011 case, the European Court of Human Rights found that Belgium and Greece violated the rights of an Afghani asylum seeker. Greece’s violations were because of the conditions described above. Interestingly, Belgium’s violations were due to their systematic application of the Dublin regulation. The Belgian Alien Office’s procedure provided no possibility for the Afghani asylum seeker to state why he should not be returned to Greece. Recall that the Dublin regulation specifically states that the receiving country must have a functioning asylum system. Belgium claimed it was relying on the assurance of the Greek government that they did. However, the court stated that it was incumbent upon Belgium to verify how Greek authorities applied their legislation on asylum in actual practice. At that time, it was well-known to most that conditions for asylum seekers in Greece were undignified and inhumane. The court also took the trauma of an asylum seeker into account when it stated that the “applicant’s distress was accentuated by the vulnerability inherent in his situation as an asylum seeker.”

Many EU countries were alarmed by this finding, fearing an influx of asylum seekers who no longer could be sent back to Greece based on its system, or lack thereof, for processing asylum applications. In 2016, increased hostility towards migrants and fears of “jihadists” and IS soldiers infiltrating EU countries caused border closings, wall construction, and other measures in countries like Austria and Switzerland who were previously known for a welcoming attitude towards migrants. In response, the EU decided to transfer 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU member states. Although in the end only a small percentage of those asylum seekers were transferred, many countries bristled at the decision which is said to have emboldened parties with anti-immigrant platforms the same way Chancellor Merkel’s 2015 decision is said to have made AfD a formidable political party. Instead of forcing the transfer of al of the 160,000 asylum seekers, the EU established “hotspots” which were supposed to expedite the processing of asylum claims. In reality, these hotspots today are chronically overcrowded and understaffed detention and expulsion centers.

The walls and border closings failed to slow the influx of migrants, so the EU turned to making deals with other nations like Turkey. Turkey would receive money and visa-free travel to the EU, as well as faster negotiations for their entry into the bloc. Turkey’s efforts, though, failed to close the EU borders as the smuggling trade began to thrive. In the end, only 750 migrants were sent back to Turkey from Greece as the Greek courts and officials agreed that Turkey was unsafe and hostile towards migrants.

The EU has continued to link development aid and economic incentives to commitments from places like Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Nigeria to stop migrant movement within those countries to prevent individuals from entering the bloc. It has cut deals with countries with poor human rights records, acting in direct conflict with international protection frameworks including the fundamental right to leave one’s own country. However, it does support refugees in host countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The conditions of those countries are known to be subpar.

The EU has even seen a fight over semantics in discussing migrants and what to do with them. According to the UN High Council for Refugees’s Master Glossary, the following are key definitions:

asylum seeker – This is a person who is claiming refugee status and seeking international protection. Not every asylum seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker.

refugee – This is an individual who has fled their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return because of fear of persecution. An individual may also have fled in response to a natural disaster or war.

migrant – This is an individual who leaves the country of origin to find work, obtain a better education, and/or reunite with family. These people are not internationally protected and may be processed according to the laws of the country of entry.

It is this definition of refugee versus migrant that is at issue in so many countries. Immigrant-rights activists have also turned to European news agencies to stop using the word “migrant” and start using the phrase “asylum seekers” in line with the definitions laid out above.

So, are these individuals fleeing places like Syria (22% of asylum seekers in Germany) and Afghanistan to be considered migrants or refugees, and if they are refugees, where will they be placed and what supports and treatments can they expect? What of the future of the wealthiest country in Europe and the European Union as a whole? The next two days should be revealing. There is a possibility that what happens at this summit could shape United States immigration policy as well. So much is at stake for millions of people.

Writer’s note: What I have written above represents a survey of international law, United Nations decisions, and German history and culture. I was born and raised in the United States and do not claim to have an insider’s perspective on EU challenges or culture, more specifically the German concept of Heimat, the rise of AfD, and tolerance/acceptance of migrants and refugees. The above is my attempt to unravel the complex issues of immigration and human rights in other countries as compared to my home country. I do not claim to be an expert.

Sources: “Heimat” finds a homecoming
After Syrian refugee crisis Europe tightens border control
What the Difference is Between Refugees and Asylum Seekers
ECtHR M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece
Understanding Migration and Asylum in the European Union
EU leaders meet for “make or break” migration talks

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