Burden sharing, where art thou?

With winter approaching, the EU needs to up its game on refugee burden sharing

On 4 November, 30 refugees were relocated from Greece to Luxembourg. Six families, four from Syria, two from Iraq, and some with special needs members were transferred to Luxembourg. To mark the occasion, a ceremony preceded their departure and was attended by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos, President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn and Greece's Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Yiannis Mouzalas. Pictures have circulated of the families with the Greek prime minister along with the numbers of actual relocations that have taken place so far – 116 refugees from Italy and Greece had been relocated as of the 4 November, with 159,884 to go.

The EU’s response to the crisis so far has been disconcerting to say the least. With four summits on migration having been held already, and a fifth taking place on 12 November, there is a growing feeling that decisions have been made but few steps have been taken towards implementing them. Member States have committed to burden sharing in principle but not in practice.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamoushotspot-relocation system. Functioning like a network of interconnected vessels, the system should meet two urgent needs:

  • to curb the flow of arrivals via the Western Balkans to Germany, Austria and Sweden; and
  • to give EU Member States the time to prepare their national systems to receive refugees being relocated from Greece and Italy.

Relocation is necessary because of the Dublin system and begins at the hotspots that Greece and Italy have been forced to open. Hotspots – an unfortunate name for what are essentially screening centres – are facilities where the nationality of applicants is determined and a vulnerability assessment takes place. Preliminary asylum applications are made and asylum seekers (including prima facie refugees) are then transferred to reception centres as they await the processing of their claims. Economic migrants, on the other hand, are transferred to pre-removal facilities geared for return.

In this system, the states on the frontline continue to bear the main responsibility for screening and processing asylum claims. However, member states do redistribute and share part of the burden in two ways. Firstly, by committing human and financial resources to assist Greece and Italy, and secondly, by hosting some recipients of international protection, through relocation frameworks (i.e. asylum applicants screened through the hotspots, originating from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea only).

So far, neither side has kept up its commitment. Greece and Italy have officially opened only one hotspot in their territories (Lesbos and Lampedusa respectively), though for different reasons. Italy has publicly acknowledged that it is waiting to see how quickly EU Members will mobilise, and how quickly relocation will take place before it sets up more centres. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, has said as early as September that though Italy is ready for the hotspots, it is up to Europe to redistribute the migrants. There is scepticism about whether EU member states will actually meet their pledges. Delaying the hotspot-relocation system runs the risk of turning frontline states, like Italy, into waiting zones where thousands remain for a minimum of two years until states process their asylum claim, all the while hoping that some will eventually be relocated within the EU.

For Greece, there is an added problem that has been identified best by the Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann: lack of capacity. In October 2015 he visited Lesbos, the first island to host a hotspot, and hewarned that more of them would not be ready in time since “in terms of timing and organization, nothing has been thought through. [To be ready]… by the end of the year requires central coordination, considerably more resources, considerably more personnel“. A seven month delay in acknowledging the scale and size of the problem and responding to it means that the Greek government is playing catch up to an ever-growing crisis. Like Italy, Greece will have to build adequate reception facilities for asylum seekers, pre-removal facilities for eligible returnees, and commit financial resources it does not have, while relying on its European partners to implement their pledges.

In the meantime, the rest of Europe has not met its end of the bargain with the exception of three countries (Germany, Austria and Sweden). These three nations have received asylum applications directly, on top of their commitment quotas for relocated refugees. Germany registered the arrival of 758,473 asylum seekers, about a third of which (243,721) were from Syria. Austria and Sweden also have received a significant portion of asylum applicants.

The unsustainability of the current situation is visible to everyone. Sweden has already announced that it will apply for activation of the relocation mechanism, designed for hosting asylum seekers in other member states, meaning it has insufficient capacity to receive more arrivals at this moment in time. Directly affected countries speak of national systems that are overwhelmed and a desire to fence their borders, while Germany appears to be standing alone in its decision to keep its borders open to refugees – especially the Syrians. It was a bold move to do so, and one that depended on both the hotspots to regulate the flow, and the relocation framework to redistribute the burden amongst member states. So far the gambit has failed and Germany’s recent decision to offer only subsidiary protection to the Syrians represents a step backwards from its former unconditional hospitality. Subsidiary protection is temporary (one year) and offers limited protection in comparison to the refugee status that is a more durable solution. Coupled with the changes in its asylum system since early November, Germany increasingly seems to be taking a harder stance on refugees than before, influenced by (rather than by influencing) its EU partners.

As the winter fast approaches and the death toll in the Aegean Sea increases, the European Commission’s November update on relocation/hotspots is troubling. Of the original plan, only 1,418 places (out of 160,000) have been made available by 14 member states for refugees. In addition, only 157 experts (of 374 requested) have been provided, and 353 border guards (of 743 requested). Beyond the relocation scheme, member states pledged an additional 50,000 asylum places for the Western Balkan route with only 12,000 places actually committed so far. It is unclear what member states are waiting for. The Commission has cautioned the need for patience with more relocation planned in the coming month. Nevertheless, if the figures remain in the dozens rather than hundreds, at this speed it will take more than two years to reach the goal of 160,000. When looking at these figures we need to keep in mind it is not just Syrians arriving. Europe is on the receiving end of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan, to name but a few, albeit in smaller numbers, and not all fall under the relocation scheme. What will happen to those who are entitled protection but fall outside the criteria of the temporary measures undertaken?

There are no quick policy solutions to the current crisis and no adequate solution can be developed and implemented by just a handful of member states alone. Nonetheless, contributions from all can alleviate part of the burden. It is clear that unless some of the countries of origin and especially those of transit assist in the management of the flows, Europe has insufficient capacity and willingness to deal with the crisis. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to assume that third countries will shoulder the whole burden themselves, at least in the medium term. The causes of refugee and migration crises are complex and require structural changes in countries of origin and transit that often take decades to address, and have unpredictable outcomes. For now, the EU has to come to terms with a changing world and its changing position in it. The focus should be both inwards and outward looking.

It is time to start seriously discussing legal channels of entry for asylum seekers (potentially by utilising EU embassies in third countries to process claims) and agree on the permanent redistribution mechanism. As the Common European Asylum System comes under review, and the Dublin mechanism is effectively suspended, the crisis can be an opportunity to set up a more flexible mechanism that is geared towards crisis-response and which enables mobilisation of EU resources at any given time, with each member state responsible for contributing on a permanent basis.

It is also time to openly address demographics. How many people can the EU absorb, over what period, and most importantly, which are EU’s existing and future needs? Migration can be a mutually beneficial experience for the individual and the host if we choose to make it so.

Looking to the periphery and beyond, the time has come to offer genuine incentives to third countries to cooperate, but the EU must engage in close monitoring of these countries to ensure that fundamental and human rights are respected. Likewise, return can only take place if third countries cooperate and should only take place if there are sufficient guarantees for humane and dignified treatment of returnees. The upcoming summit in Valletta on 11 & 12  November seeks to address the role of African countries in managing irregular flows to the EU, yet both sides arrive at the table with different needs, and a general feeling of dissatisfaction when it comes to cooperation thus far.  It remains to be seen how they will bridge the gap.

Finally, the EU should ensure that frontline states enhance their asylum systems, screening capacity, and coordinate civil society, NGOs and International organisations on the ground to avoid overlapping of resource provision and general chaos. Member states should catalogue their national capacities, budgetary needs and commitments, and begin preparing for relocation. It would be perceived as a sign of goodwill not only internally but also externally, and an indication that Europe is finally stepping into a leadership role when it comes to managing the crisis.

It is clear that the hotspot-relocation system was poorly designed and a short-term response to a larger, ongoing crisis. It cannot stem the flow of refugees nor provide long-term solutions. Nonetheless, it was, perhaps, the first coordinated attempt by many EU leaders to show solidarity and commit to actual burden sharing. For this reason alone, it must succeed. The goal of 160,000 relocated refugees is a drop in an ocean compared with the millions that are already hosted in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Yet this is a test of the willingness and capacity of the Union to respond to a changing world. Many more refugee crises are expected, and failure to rise to the present challenge makes for a gloomy future outlook.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Visiting Fellow

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