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Symposium 2015

Solution for Migrants Knocking on Europe's Doors: Towards a Coherent Response to Irregular Immigration

The Challenge

Tens of thousands of irregular migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, set out for Europe each year. If they reach Europe alive, most ultimately manage to stay here - irrespective of whether ...

Tens of thousands of irregular migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, set out for Europe each year. If they reach Europe alive, most ultimately manage to stay here - irrespective of whether they are granted political asylum or refugee status. However, many irregular immigrants first have to criss-cross Europe in search of somewhere safe to live. Later, many live off welfare for several years because they are not allowed to work. Furthermore, EU member states have been slow to support those afflicted by humanitarian crises in their neighborhood, such as the war in Syria. In addition, there are almost no legal employment opportunities for low or medium-skilled immigrants from outside the EU. This situation calls for a comprehensive policy response by the EU and its member states to address humanitarian crises, apply uniform standards for protecting refugees and for deciding on political asylum and refugee status, and provide more legal employment opportunities for non-EU immigrants.

Give a Stronger Role to the European Union in Financing and Administering the Asylum System

For several years, a growing number of irregular migrants have entered the EU, mostly to apply for political asylum. According to the Dublin III Regulation, applications for asylum must be processed by the member state where the applicant first enters the EU.

However, several South European member states where many refugees arrive find it difficult to bear the cost of providing them with the basic necessities of life and assessing their applications for asylum speedily and fairly. Many refugees also prefer to live in higher income, North European EU member states. Therefore, countries of first arrival have every incentive to ignore their responsibilities and let refugees move on to other EU member states. Some transit countries now find themselves similarly overburdened. In spite of the recent disruptions in cross-border transport in parts of the EU and temporary border controls, most irregular immigrants still manage to reach the EU member state of their choice.

Thus, the present asylum system in the EU is dysfunctional. If existing rules were followed, the cost of supporting refugees and processing their applications for asylum would fall disproportionately on relatively poor member states that are not even the intended destinations of most refugees. At the same time, the countries that now receive a disproportionately large share of immigrants may soon reach the limit of their absorptive capacity in terms of plain logistics, or their populations may become unwilling to welcome more refugees because of the fiscal cost and possibly disruptive labor market effects involved.

These dilemmas illustrate the broader point that in a diverse geographic space where people move freely (such as the Schengen area), a common obligation to provide humanitarian protection requires uniform standards for asylum procedures and assistance for refugees as well as a fair cost-sharing mechanism among member states. Although refugees could theoretically be allocated to member states through mandatory quotas, this has proved unworkable in the EU: Some member states reject mandatory quotas outright (even relatively small ones), whereas others have a history of not fully meeting their humanitarian obligations towards refugees on their territory.

Therefore, the EU should assume full financial and administrative responsibility for the asylum system. Additional resources would need to be raised for this from member states, ideally through standard channels so that member states would contribute in line with their GDP. In terms of logistics and implementation, the EU would still have to rely on national, regional and local administrative bodies. However, since the cost would be borne by the EU budget, we expect to see a greater willingness by member states to live up to their humanitarian responsibilities.

Allocating responsibility for the asylum system to the EU would be in line with the principle of subsidiarity. First, all member states have accepted an obligation (in principle, unlimited) to provide humanitarian protection; second, each member state benefits from the protection extended by another member state by not having to protect these same individuals. In addition, there are expenditures such as support for refugees in third countries (especially Syria’s neighbors at this time) that may reduce the incentive for irregular immigration into the EU and should be funded by the EU following the same logic.

How expensive might such a scheme be? There are obviously many uncertainties, including the future number of irregular immigrants. By way of seeking an upper bound, based on what we know as of September 2015, let us assume that 1.5 million refugees enter the EU annually and remain in the asylum system for an average of two years, before being integrated into the national labor market or returning to their home countries (voluntarily or otherwise). Further, based on German experience, €15,000 per year seems a reasonable estimate of the average cost across the EU of basic subsistence for one individual plus associated administrative expenses. The latter would either be borne directly or refunded by the EU. These assumptions imply a hypothetical cost of the asylum system from Year 2 of €45 billion annually. This amount seems high at first sight, but represents less than one third of the current EU budget and only around one third of 1% of member states’ GDP.

Shifting to a new funding scheme for the asylum system would inevitably take time. In the meantime, there are many smaller ways for the EU to assume more financial responsibility and enforce common standards. For example, there are plans for the EU to run (and fund) processing and assistance centers for irregular immigrants in the countries of first arrival. Such centers would also organize the return of those immigrants not eligible for protection in the EU. Furthermore, recent proposal for quotas to allocate immigrants to EU member states would have the EU pay a fixed amount of €6,000 per refugee covered by the scheme to the receiving country. Unfortunately, this amount is too low to cover member states’ true costs; the proposed quotas (mandatory or otherwise) are also much smaller than the number of irregular immigrants in 2015. Nevertheless, this scheme could potentially become an important step in the right direction.

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