Maarten Vink and Khalid Koser Maarten Vink and Khalid Koser Sacha Ruland

Limits to European asylum

Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Thursday, 05 February 2015 11:56

In 2014, more than 140,000 asylum seekers made their way across the Mediterranean Sea towards the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily. Thousands drowned en route. In summer 2015, the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) will come into effect. Will this centralisation of the approach to asylum issues across EU member states help to solve problems like those in Lampedusa? Khalid Koser, professor of Conflict, Peace and Security, and Maarten Vink, professor of Political Science, are moderately enthusiastic. “It provides a minimum standard”, says Vink. But according to Koser, “In practice a centralised system is a fantasy.”


In fact, the EU has had a common European asylum system for years; the implementation in 2015 of the CEAS, which guarantees the same minimum rules for immigration and treatment of asylum seekers across member states, is a mere formality. A centralised system has its advantages, in Koser’s view, though this depends on one’s perspective. After all, what is good for a member state may be bad for an asylum seeker. For instance, centralisation should counter what is known as ‘asylum shopping’. “When different member states have different systems, asylum seekers will aim for the country with the most favourable regulations. In addition, centralisation helps to even out the disproportionate burden faced by countries on the front line, like Italy, Greese and Malta”, Koser explains. “In theory, anyway. In practice, a centralised system is a fantasy. National asylum systems prevail over this common arrangement. Just look at the differences in the allocation and recognition statistics in the different member states.”

Freedom of movement
Migrants will continue to apply for asylum in individual member states, rather than centrally to the EU. Moreover, the EU is supposed to be an economic organisation. Why should it bother at all with asylum matters? “A common asylum system, involving strict control of the EU’s external borders, serves as a sort of compensation for the removal of the internal borders for goods, services and people”, Vink explains. “The idea of free movement hinges on member states relaxing their internal borders. Without strict control of the EU’s external borders, they would be less likely to do this. This is why the EU is so concerned with asylum matters. Without some form of centralisation, free movement within the EU would be impossible.”

According to Vink, there is a trend in the EU towards greater centralisation, the CEAS being a good example. Further to establishing common minimum standards, then, shouldn’t the next challenge be to harmonise the various asylum systems? Why do the member states still have their own, different systems? “This is the case with many things in the EU: labour, the environment, the economy, and especially the politics of migration. The EU establishes regulations and minimum standards, then the member states implement these through their own legislative systems.” More is unnecessary, in Vink’s view. “After all, the EU is not a state.”

Race to the bottom
Koser agrees. He, too, sees the upside of having minimum standards for European asylum rules – at least in theory. “One risk is that the member states end up in a ‘race to the bottom’ in their asylum legislation: I’m going to be more restrictive than my neighbours, so that asylum seeks go there and not here.” When it comes to a topic as highly politicised as asylum policy, this is a real risk. “Say a populist and restrictive government is voted in. The EU’s minimum requirements then offer protection; a sort of lower threshold that member states can’t fall below.”

So how will the member states interpret and implement these minimum requirements of European asylum law? Vink: “There is a lot of ambiguity, because these standards are often made up of compromises by member states. They tend to be worded vaguely so that everyone can agree, but what they mean exactly is unclear. As a result, you can implement them in a strict or in a fairly liberal way.” Applicants do always have recourse to a national court, however, which in case of doubt can submit a question to the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg.

Safer bet
A restrictive implementation is one of the risks of a centralised asylum policy, according to Vink. Surprisingly, Australia – a country with a good reputation when it comes to human rights – is a good example of this. In an effort to lower the relatively large number of refugees who arrive there by boat, asylum seekers are now intercepted at sea and detained on Christmas Island for processing. “If a European asylum system were that restrictive, a diverse system might well be preferable”, says Vink. But that won’t appear overnight. “We shouldn’t expect too much of the EU.”

What does the CEAS mean for asylum seekers? This depends on the country in which they are applying for asylum. The new standards might improve the situation in countries like Greece, Vink says. “The Greek system is very underdeveloped. So the European Court of Human Rights recently condemned Belgium’s decision to send an asylum seeker back to Greece. In the ideal situation, the common asylum system will help to raise standards in Greece.” Asylum shopping, however, remains a more attractive option. “If I were an asylum seeker, I’d do my best to go to countries like Germany or Sweden”, says Koser. “That’s a safer bet.”

Crisis of confidence
But this is all the ‘small picture’, as Koser describes the centralisation of asylum policy. It is overshadowed by a much bigger issue: the current crisis of confidence in the governance of European countries. “In the UK, but I suspect also in other countries, many citizens see the EU as an ineffective and bureaucratic power that wants to impose itself on the national systems. That’s not true, but it’s a stubborn perception that we need to keep in mind.” Immigration is a key issue in elections. “As a British politician, if I wanted to win an election, I’d keep the EU at arm’s length and do the absolute minimum to comply with the European asylum rules.”

An anti-immigration mood prevails in Europe, Koser continues. “Migration used to be about protecting and helping people. Now the dominant perception is that migration is a national security issue.” Consider the drowning of hundreds of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. “For most politicians, this only demonstrated the insecurity of our external borders. They see it primarily as a precursor to massive, uncontrolled migration. The choice that arises is either strict border control or a restrictive policy, which in turn will lead to more people smuggling. There’s no political space to promote liberal migration policies.”

Regional approach
In Europe, the effects of the CEAS will therefore be limited. But outside Europe, the EU as a unit could play a greater role. Vink suggests, for example, that assistance could be offered to the region of origin of asylum seekers. “That’s a different form of protection, which is still quite unregulated. For instance, you could prevent refugees from trying to cross the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat.” “According to a report by the International Organization for Migration, about 3700 people will die this year in the Mediterranean”, Koser points out. “There are lives at stake here.”

Khalid Koser (1969) is professor of Conflict, Peace and Security at UNU-MERIT/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. He is also deputy director and academic dean at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Migration, and co-editor of the Journal of Refugee Studies. He has published widely on asylum issues, refugees, internal displacement and migration.

Maarten Vink (1975) is professor of Political Science at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) and joint director of the Maastricht Centre for Citizenship, Migration and Development (MACIMIDE). He is also part-time professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, where he is joint director of the European Union Democracy Observatory on Citizenship (EUDO CITIZENSHIP). He has published widely on the politics of citizenship, immigration and asylum, especially in a comparative context.

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