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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 17 September, 2014

Column: Europe needs a new approach to illegal immigration

Restoring fiscal health to the eurozone remains a serious challenge, but the EU must nevertheless find a solution to its illegal immigration crisis to prevent further tragedies, writes David Moloney.

David Moloney

ON THE 9th of October, President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, visited the small Italian island of Lampedusa where at least 311 migrants drowned as they attempted to enter the EU via Italy.

In response to the Lampedusa tragedy, Barroso pledged €30 million of EU funding to the Italian authorities to help them tackle the illegal immigration crisis. But, with an estimated 8,400 migrants having already crossed the sea to Italy from North Africa this year alone, according to figures from the EU’s border agency Frontex and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), extra EU funds are only part of the solution.

The Dublin II Regulation

The EU has been working on a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) since 1999, after the European Council meeting in Tampere, which has seen the introduction of a number of policies with the aim of harmonising asylum policy across the Union. Since the Tampere meeting, a number of legislative acts have been passed including the Council Regulation (EC) No 343/2003 or the Dublin II Regulation.

The Dublin II Regulation clarified which Member State would be responsible for examining an asylum application. Under the regulation, an asylum seeker must seek refuge in the Member State where he/she first entered. Thus if the individual travels from Malta to France, the French authorities can send that person back to Malta where their asylum application would be processed. Initially, the Dublin II Regulation was attacked by Human Rights groups for failing to provide adequate protection for refugees.

On the 21st of January 2011, the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), not to be confused with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), found that the regulation failed to offer sufficient protection for those seeking it. The ECHR judgement was delivered in the M.S.S. v Belgium and Greece case, where an Afghan asylum seeker (who had travelled through Greece to Belgium) was deported back to Greece under the Dublin II Regulation after he attempted to apply for asylum in Belgium. The Afghan national successfully argued that if he was sent back to Greece that he would be at risk of degrading and inhuman treatment there.

After the ECHR judgement, most EU states ceased to deport those who had entered their countries illegally via Greece, despite their obligation to do so under Dublin II Regulation.

The Regulation has come under further pressure after the recent waves of refugees that have hit Italy and Malta since the intensification of the Syrian Civil War and the on-going clamp down of human rights in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. According to Frontex, there were 15,150 illegal border crossings into Italy and Malta, the Central and Western Mediterranean routes respectively, in 2012.

This migratory wave has put the Italian, Maltese and Greek immigration and asylum systems under huge pressure. Greece, which is going through tough austerity measures, simply cannot afford to house the sheer numbers of asylum claimants. There is also a shortage of funds in Italy which means that refugees who do make it onto the Italian mainland only have a roof over their head for a maximum of 10 months before been forced to find shelter elsewhere.

Malta, despite being in a better financial position than Greece or Italy, is also struggling to find extra funding to meet the needs of those who have arrived illegally on its shores.

No solutions in sight

Despite the tragedy of Lampedusa, northern Member States are reluctant to revise the Dublin II Regulation. At a Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council meeting, held in Luxembourg on the 7th and 8th of October, the issue of refugee ‘burden sharing’ was discussed by Ministers for Justice and the Interior. Unsurprisingly, northern Member States, particularly Germany, shot down that proposal.

Indeed, the concept of ‘burden sharing’ has been raised before, when Spain experienced a wave of illegal migration in 2006. By the end of 2006, 30,000 people landed on the Canary Islands provoking the Spanish authorities to ask for assistance from its EU neighbours, in resettling some of the migrants. The Spanish call for help, like Malta’s was discussed by the JHA Council, however Member States refused to heed Spain’s calls to revise the Dublin II Regulation.

The only policy that the JHA Council could agree on at the October meeting was to increase co-operation between Member States and the countries that are a source of much of the illegal immigration. This proposed co-operation between the EU and African states is nothing new, in 2006 then Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini called for EU Migration Support Teams (MIST) to be established in African countries experiencing high levels of emigration. However, Frattini’s proposal never got off the ground, thus making it doubtful if there will be any similar policies in this area in the future.

October’s JHA Council also called for a strengthening of EU’s external borders. A somewhat difficult proposition when one considers that Frontex has a budget of just €85 million, compared to €115 million in 2011. Member States are also unwilling to strengthen their surveillance of their national borders. The new Eurosur system, which aims to tackle cross-border crime, has failed to garner the full support of the Member States and thus it looks like it will become a failure before it even comes into operation.

Of course, it should be no surprise that some Member States are reluctant to allow a supranational body like the Commission to control the EU’s immigration and asylum policy – but if Member States do not act now then there will be more Lampedusas in the future.

David Moloney is currently a tutor of Comparative European Politics and Issues of European Integration at the University of Limerick. He will be beginning his PhD at the University in January 2014 after having been awarded a scholarship; his PhD will explore the impact of Ireland as a bargaining actor in the Council of Ministers of the European Union during the financial crisis. David is a former employee of the European Parliament. Follow him on Twitter @Dav_Moloney

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