EU summit to tackle surge in asylum-seekers

Migrants crossing the green border from Serbia into Hungary on Tuesday. Hungary intends to build a 4m-high fence on the border to keep out migrants, as the EU struggles to deal with a massive influx of asylum-seekers.
Migrants crossing the green border from Serbia into Hungary on Tuesday. Hungary intends to build a 4m-high fence on the border to keep out migrants, as the EU struggles to deal with a massive influx of asylum-seekers.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Anti-immigration feeling in Europe makes solutions difficult

EUROPEAN Union heads of state and government are gathering in Brussels today for a summit aimed at tackling the continent's growing immigration challenge.

But with the political backlash against immigrants gaining momentum across Europe, the best the EU can accomplish at this stage is to restore some order to its border control procedures, rather than overhaul the entire immigration system.

According to Eurostat, the EU's statistical agency, the total number of refugees and asylum-seekers arriving in the EU last year was 626,000 - breaking all records - and was 44 per cent up on 2013. This year, the numbers look set to rise even higher.

The bulk of the refugees originate from Africa and land mostly in Italy at the end of dangerous sea voyages in rickety boats operated by human-trafficking gangs.

But one of the fastest-growing illegal routes is overland from the war-torn Middle East and through the porous borders of south-east Europe. Most of these refugees end up in Hungary.

In response to the deaths of about 800 would-be migrants who drowned when their Italy-bound fishing trawler capsized in the Mediterranean Sea in April, European leaders agreed to explore two parallel approaches: a plan to disperse the existing asylum-seekers throughout the EU, and measures to reduce immigration flows. Neither is faring well.

Under existing EU laws, the member state where an asylum-seeker first lands is responsible for him or her in all respects; the individual cannot have a claim on residence elsewhere in Europe.

The provision was put in place to stop "asylum-shopping", the practice of some illegal immigrants who move from one European country to another.  But the result is that front-line countries such as Italy and Hungary are overwhelmed by the arrivals.

Goaded by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who argues that "helping the migrants is everyone's duty", EU leaders will today examine a proposal from the European Commission (EC), the bloc's executive body.

It calls for the implementation of a binding quota system, under which each EU state will take in a set number of asylum- seekers. The system, to apply for two years only, is designed to clear the existing Italian and Hungarian refugee camps.

But opposition is fierce, with Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the countries closest to Hungary, all rejecting the quotas.

"While expressing solidarity to member states mostly exposed to migratory pressures, we underline the responsibility of front-line member states to fully implement mechanisms (now) in place," their prime ministers said in a joint statement.

Even Hungary is opposed to the proposed quota system, largely because it hopes to rid itself of all asylum-seekers. The EC's plan to spread migrants across the continent is, therefore, stillborn.

Meanwhile, efforts to restrict the flow of migrants are not succeeding either.

A European plan to get United Nations authority for the use of air power to destroy the ships used by human traffickers in the Mediterranean remains stuck in the Security Council, where it is opposed by Russia and China.

The EU has softened the language of its draft resolution by suggesting that the aim of the operation will no longer be to destroy but, rather, to "dispose" of human trafficking boats - through a variety of means, not just air strikes.

EU leaders today will also back a proposal to increase the surveillance of the seas surrounding their continent. But nobody is under any illusion that such measures will have any immediate effect on refugee inflows.

Instead, the main purpose of the summit is just to prevent the collapse of Europe's existing immigration arrangements under the weight of all these strains.

One day after saying it is "temporarily suspending" EU rules requiring the country to take full responsibility for asylum- seekers registered on its soil, Hungary reversed its decision yesterday.

Hungary's recent anti-immigration moves have caused alarm.

Last week, the Hungarian government said it was planning to erect a four-metre- high electrified fence on its eastern borders, in contradiction with all the open border policies of the EU.

And Italy is threatening to stop registering newly-arrived illegal immigrants to avoid shouldering responsibility for their welfare.

EU leaders hope a showdown may be avoided at the summit, perhaps by drafting a compromise policy aimed at reinforcing the outer parameters of their continent.

It is a strategy which satisfies nobody. But, like Greece's financial crisis which is also being discussed at the same summit, Europe's immigration problem brooks no solution.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'EU summit to tackle surge in asylum-seekers'. Print Edition | Subscribe