Door Arnold de Boer op 23 april 2015

Towards an Asylum and Migration policy that is based on solidarity

Introductory note for the event on Asylum and Migration, organised by PvdA Brussels, on 13 May 2015

Arnold de Boer, Secretary PvdA Brussels.

Migration and asylum issues are challenges that have dominated the public debate in every EU Member State during the past decade. This debate continues to increase the divide between right- and left-wing politics, generally between those advocating closed borders and those demanding solidarity. Over the past few years it seems that more and more people feel that Europe is reaching the limits of its capacity to take up irregular migrants. And as a consequence, it has become more difficult to appeal to (international) solidarity.

The present debate is harsh, sometimes outright xenophobic, and often lacking a human-centred approach. Populist politicians are getting away with drawing simplistic pictures of the situation, with equally simplistic solutions. And mainstream parties are following them, such as the Dutch right-wing liberal party (VVD), part of a coalition government with the PvdA, who recently presented a disgraceful ‘vision’ on migration: close all borders for asylum seekers from outside the EU, and focus our efforts on reception of refugees in the region.

It marks a stage in the debate where right-wing politicians can easily present radical views and get away with it, without being challenged and matched by a solid Social Democratic answer.

What should be the answer of Social Democrats in Europe?

Even though the number of asylum applicants in the Member States is still not on the same level as during the 1990s, it is increasing rapidly. And according to figures of the Italian government, last year 170.000 migrants managed to reach Italy by boat, and 3.500 perished. In 2015, the Mediterranean region is again expecting a record influx of irregular migrants. Compared to the same period last year, the number of irregular migrants that have arrived so far is up with 43%. A substantial number of these refugees is from Syria. Even though more than 90% of the Syrian refugees are being sheltered in directly neighbouring countries, many of them still make it to Europe. We have witnessed the horrendous events where hundreds of migrants died at sea. And summer, when good weather is expected to boost the flow of migrants and refugees by sea, has yet to start.

These figures make it clear that a more effective policy towards migration flows to Europe is needed. The focus of new policy on migration should be, first and foremost, to find a sustainable solution on how to deal with irregular migrants fleeing from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East in particular.

On May 13, slightly earlier than expected due to a sudden political awareness that action is necessary, the European Commission will present the European Agenda on Migration.  The goal of this agenda will be to develop new ways of managing migration flows, for example, by exploring options to open up legal migration channels in conflict areas. At the same time, the Agenda will try to foster migration of (highly) skilled workers to tackle an increasing skills gap in Europe, particularly in view of its ageing population.

However, from these proposals little ambition is to be expected. Apart from increased cooperation with third countries and opening up legal channels for irregular migration from those countries, there won’t be much news. The deadlock in the Council on remigration, so-called Dublin-II, is not likely to be touched. Also, even though migration corridors and legal channels will be necessary, they are not going to be the magic solution.

Yet, the urgency is clear. Despite efforts on the EU level to implement the Common European Asylum System, and to organise joint border control mechanisms, the EU is struggling – to say the least – to organise truly joint efforts. Lacking European solidarity, Member States make up their own policies, organise their own search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, build their own fences in Morocco, Greece, or Bulgaria, because of the pressure of migration flows on their own society. But no matter how many fences are built, no matter how many boats are sent back, no matter how high the risk of dying at sea has become, more and more people are waging their lives at the moment.

It is strange that with such complex and clearly international issues as asylum and migration, Member States and their politicians have the opportunity to use data and policies for their own interpretation and political gain. Ideally, there should be an entirely different approach, one that perceives migration policy strictly European and takes away tools for Member States to define their own policies in a restrictive way.  This has resulted in a race to the bottom between Member States to scare off refugees. And I believe that we have seen the clear failure, with one look at the thousands of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, no matter what.

After the 13th of May, we can expect a heavy political fight on the Agenda on Migration. And the question is what the answer of European Social Democrats will be. We will get ahead on this, with several sets of questions. First of all, how can we develop a credible and realistic migration policy that is based on solidarity with other humans in need? What is the alternative to Fortress Europe? What role should the EU play in search and rescue, and which role should the Member States play? How, for instance, can we break the current lack of consensus in Europe on issues like remigration?

Secondly, what is a humane asylum policy, and how can we organise this in a European and national context? Do we need more than implementation of the Common European Asylum System? Can a system of redistribution be a panacea? When there is an almost complete lack of consensus in the Council on these issues, how can we still forge some progress?

Thirdly, we will need to talk about our communication. For well-esteemed members of the Brussels bubble it may seem obvious to talk about European solutions for European problems, but this is far from the case in the individual Member States. As with the economy, asylum and migration are increasingly becoming right-wing topics, and it is increasingly right-wing politicians who are able to tempt their voters with a narrow-minded view. It is no longer sufficient to simply counter those politicians with an appeal for solidarity. We need to convince citizens with well-thought, comprehensive ideas. How can we ensure that a social democratic approach finds acceptance amongst citizens? What should be our response (or, preferably, our initiative), and how can we avoid or counter a populist framing of the debate?

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said on the tragedy with hundreds of migrants lost at sea on 19 April: “These deaths, and the hundreds of others that preceded them in recent months were sadly predictable. […] They are the result of a continuing failure of governance accompanied by a monumental failure of compassion.”

It’s going to be a hot summer.