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A central European asylum system supported by all Member States is never going to happen. Organise the reception of asylum seekers among willing Member States, let the other Member States financially contribute and give European cities a larger role. That is the conclusion of UvA political scientists Jeroen Doomernik and Vincenzo Gomes: “an eye-opener for us as well.”

MEPS discussing a centralised EU system for asylum claims (photo: European Parliament)
MEPS discussing a centralised EU system for asylum claims (photo: European Parliament)

Doomernik and Gomes developed and tested multiple future scenarios to explore what an European asylum system should look like. At stakeholder meetings in Amsterdam, Milan and Vienna, they studied the viability of these scenarios together with representatives of relevant policy departments and organisations.

The study is part of the European CaesEVAL project (Common European Asylum System EVALuation), led by Chemnitz University of Technology in GermanyCaesEVAL aimed to find out what does and does not work in the European asylum system and which solutions may enhance the system.

Doomernik and Gomes conclude that a central system is not going to work, but they identify an alternative.

The backbone of European asylum policy

Europe has the ambition of implementing a common asylum policy that is endorsed by all Member States. This policy already exists on paper in the shape of the 1990 Dublin Convention, which was made into a Regulation in 2003. The Regulation sets out that when asylum seekers arrive in a Member State and request asylum, this Member State is responsible for processing the request. “This procedure is clear and has a legal basis”, says Doomernik. “However, the Member States that joined the EU from 2004 onwards have not had a vote in this agreement,” adds Gomes.

Syrian refugees arrive on rubber boats
Syrian refugees arrive on rubber boats

The refugee crisis exposed the weaknesses of the European policy

The 2015 refugee crisis showed us that the European asylum policy is not working. Greece did not posses the infrastructure to receive all asylum seekers, resulting in a trek through the Balkans. Eastern European Member States then closed their borders, arguing that they did not come up with the European policy, while Germany opened its doors to the refugees. “Member States accused one another of failing to live up to their agreements, while a lack of mutual solidarity hindered the creation of a proper distribution formula”, explains Doomernik. “Although the deal with Turkey was hailed as the solution, there are still arguments about the number of refugees that European Member States are taking in.”

“The current European asylum system works like a charm, as long as no asylum seekers show up”

“I was always convinced that a European asylum system should be managed from a central European body and have the support of all the Member States', states Doomernik. “Along the way, however, I have grown more and more pessimistic. I have since come to the conclusion that this constant tug of war in an effort to get all Member States on the same wavelength is not working. The only consensus this will produce, is that all doors will remain closed. Sometimes, I jest by saying that 'the current Common European Asylum System works like a charm, as long as no asylum seekers show up',” Doomernik continues.

Geographic location and political situation explain the differences

Doomernik and Gomes attribute the failure of a central European asylum system that is supported by all Member States to a lack of solidarity, as well as to geographic location. Countries situated close to the European border are the first port of call for asylum seekers, meaning that they are responsible for processing their asylum request. For this reason, Member States on the outer borders (many of which only entered the EU later) wish to change the system, while countries such as the Netherlands (who are safely surrounded by other countries), do not see the political need to do so.

The political situation in a country also plays a part, however. In a firmly established welfare state such as the Netherlands, obligations towards asylum seekers are significant and therefore come with high costs. In turn, this situation affects what numbers Member States feel that they can handle.

Cities versus states

Doomernik and Gomes have also identified another dynamic within the asylum system, one that has potential for the future: the attitude of European cities. These attitudes can differ greatly from those of the Member States to which they belong. “Cities are much more willing to receive asylum seekers. They often see the opportunities of the social and human capital that these asylum seekers bring with them. By contrast, states mostly see migrants as a nuisance,” explains Gomes. “For example, Central European cities usually have a much more open attitude towards refugees than their national governments, which often want to keep their borders closed,” Doomernik adds.

A system of willing Member States and a role for cities

Which scenario do Doomernik and Gomes consider the best fit for the European asylum policy? They recommend a scenario with the following elements:

  1. Focus on states that are willing to receive asylum seekers, there are plenty of them. Unwilling Member States can contribute financially.
  2. Once properly recognised, allow refugees to establish themselves freely within Europe, so supply and demand can meet. Do not keep asylum seekers contained in a location where the needs of the local labour market do not match their skill sets. You could decide that recognised refugees may only live in a country where they are employed, just as other EU citizens.
  3. Give cities a larger role to play in the asylum system. As most asylum seekers will gravitate towards cities anyway, these locations are a crucial link in a properly functioning system.