L. Kasčiūnas: How many migrants shall Lithuania take in this time?

Laurynas Kasčiūnas
DELFI / Domantas Pipas

The deadline established two years ago for EU Member States to take in a fixed number of refugees has expired. Further ways of tackling the problem are currently under debate. In order to shape the future EU policy, the effectiveness of the quota policy applicable to date has to be assessed in the first place.

The failed quota policy

The policy launched two years ago was based on a premise that each EU Member State should take in a number of refugees within the quota established by the European Commission. By now, it is obvious that the policy has not produced the intended result. Almost all EU Member States have underperformed by accepting a lower number of refugees than envisaged in the initial quotas. In addition, many asylum seekers coming to Lithuania and other less prosperous EU countries later fled to wealthier European countries. Hungary and Poland refused to comply with the commitment altogether and are now in for EU sanctions.

However, the biggest challenge lies elsewhere. The integration of newcomers into the European labour market has proved difficult. A few years ago, Europe was led astray by naïve beliefs that a large proportion of refugees would willingly integrate into the European society and even contribute to meeting the demographic challenges and labour market shortages. Reality, however, has painted a much grimmer picture. As the Bavarian Minister for Economic Affairs has put it, as few as one in ten refugees is fit for work. Germany‘s failure to integrate immigrants into the labour market alone could come at an estimated cost of as much as EUR 400 billion over the next 20 years. Alas, the expenditure on refugees far exceeds the amount gained through the taxes they pay to the national budget.

A glance at statements by many politicians and political analysts may create a false impression that opposition to the intake of refugees mainly comes from the most backward Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Slovakia or Hungary. In fact, however, the discontent with newcomers from Muslim countries is even more marked in Western European countries. For example, Islamic extremism was feared by 67 % of Poles, 82 % Germans and 87 % Italians. The negative attitude to Muslim immigrants is shared by 61 % of the population in France, 64 % of Belgians and 65 % of Austrians.

Dissatisfaction with excessively liberal immigration policies is clearly present in most Western European countries, as evidenced by the electoral success of the extremist right-wing parties. Most of political parties with an anti-immigrant stance are also pronouncedly Eurosceptic. Some of them, including the French National Front, are characterised by open support to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Therefore, greater openness to the world and further promotion of forced solidarity (e.g. through sanctions against Poland and Hungary) can lead to increased prevalence of Euroscepticism in Europe.

Will the EU repeat the same mistakes again?

It is obvious that the quota policy, which was launched with a view to reducing the burden that falls on the Mediterranean countries, has failed. An alternative policy needs to be forged. The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties proposed a reform of the Dublin system, under which the responsibility for the reception of newcomers and assessment of asylum applications currently lies with the country of entry of asylum seekers. The proposal to reshuffle the Dublin system seems to be reasonable, the more so in view of the recent increase in the number of people trying to enter Europe. The growing number of newcomers thus places a significantly heavier burden on EU Member States, especially Greece and Italy. In this context, I would like to discuss what seem to me to be the most important and the most problematic aspects of the reform proposals.

A key proposal is to establish a mechanism for automatic distribution of refugees. The asylum seekers would thereby be linked to a particular Member State of the EU, which, in turn, would be put in charge of examining their asylum applications and providing the asylum seekers with temporary accommodation. The aim is to thus reduce the responsibility for the countries of entry. However, given that countries such as Lithuania see refugees moving to richer EU Member States shortly after their arrival, it is doubtful whether such a mechanism would produce the expected result.

At this point, it is necessary to point out that asylum seekers are entitled to different sizes of social benefits in different EU countries. For instance, reception centres in Germany offer refugees free meals and a monthly benefit of EUR 143 per person to cover their basic needs. Families are entitled to up to EUR 92 for every child they have. By way of comparison, asylum seekers staying in refugee centres in Latvia can only count on receiving a daily allowance in the amount of EUR 2.15. Clearly, financial support schemes vary greatly among EU Member States. Therefore, it is highly questionable whether asylum seekers will be willing to stay in the poorer EU Member States once the system of automatic distribution of refugees is implemented. Therefore, in order to deal with the refugee challenge, it is particularly important that countries such as Germany review their welfare policies and reduce the incentives for newcomers who are trying to enter those countries at any cost.

Under a reformed Dublin system, the newcomers who have relatives in one of the EU Member States would be transferred to that state which, in turn, would be put in charge of verifying whether the information provided is correct. This would speed up the family reunification process. The proposal may seem fair from the point of view of human values. However, it may lead to further escalation of the scourge of illegal people smuggling to Europe.

For a number of years now, criminal groups have been smuggling illegal immigrants to Europe for a fee. High fees to be paid to people smugglers may act as a deterrent to smuggling entire families wishing to flee from their countries. The envisaged reform of the Dublin system, however, would largely contribute to increasing the flow of migrants to Europe. The realisation that a part of the family may remain in its country of origin or a refugee camp outside the EU has so far prevented a fair share of potential migrants from attempts to move to Europe. Should the envisaged reform proposal be implemented, entire families would find it quite realistic to move to Europe. This would further intensify the migration problem.

I have further misgivings about the proposal to allow asylum seekers to register as a group. Take, for example, a group of refugees who originate from the same town or who meet during their journey to Europe. Under the reform proposal, they could be transferred to the same EU Member State together. This would increase the threat of terrorism and crime even further. While individuals may find it difficult to commit large-scale crimes or terrorist attacks, members of terrorist gangs could register as groups of friends of up to 30 persons and thus increase their chances of carrying out criminal activities.

Forced solidarity is not an option

The proposal to apply financial sanctions (restrictions on the use of EU funds) for countries refusing to join the refugee allocation policy merits deeper analysis. As I have already indicated in the beginning of the article, the popular dissatisfaction in many countries with EU’s open door policy leads to greater popularity of radical political forces. Greater penalties for countries wishing to opt out of the refugee reception policy will obviously lead to growing support to radical rightist parties in EU countries.

However, there is yet another problem that is often neglected. While at risk of financial sanctions for refusal to host refugees mainly from Africa and the Middle East, Poland has taken in over a million of Ukrainian refugees. Consequently, when it comes to the need for Europeans to show solidarity with the people of warring countries, it may be legitimate to ask why this logic only applies to refugees from Syria and Afghanistan and not to refugees from Ukraine.

At this point, it may be added that, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, individuals may only be considered to be refugees as long as they have not reached a first safe country, i.e. a country that is not at war. Poland and Ukraine are neighbouring countries. It is therefore only natural that Ukrainians choose to move to Poland. Thus, Poland, for its part, does in fact accept refugees. On the other hand, a large number of Syrians are coming to Europe from Turkey, i.e. a safe country. Therefore, they cannot be considered to be refugees, at least in legal terms.

According to Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian philosopher, a million of refugees from Ukraine coming to Europe would never lead to such a feeling of solidarity as a wave of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and North Africa. “Muslims meet with compassion precisely because they differ from us. This allows us to demonstrate our moral advantage. Those people are so different from us, and yet we are still helping them. No one else can reinforce the (western) self-esteem more,” Mr Krastev claims.

This leads to the fundamental question of whether the application of double standards to Ukrainian and Muslim refugees does not in itself compromise the concept of universal solidarity.

What are the alternatives?

The reform of the Dublin system is essentially an extension of the failed quota policy. In order to avoid the problems described above, we need a genuine alternative, rather than a cosmetic amendment to the quota policy. On the one hand, the EU should not remain indifferent to the people in countries at war. On the other hand, solutions are needed to discourage the business of people smuggling in its own right and provide zero opportunities for posing a threat to the well-being and security of Europeans.

One alternative might be to support the refugee camps located outside the EU and fund the reconstruction of infrastructure damaged by the warring countries. Take Poland as an example. Often blamed for an alleged lack of solidarity, in fact the country supports the reconstruction of destroyed homes and hospitals in Syria. This could also take the form of a common EU policy. Such projects could be financed by the EU, and the financial costs could be borne by Member States in proportion to their populations. That is to say, the more populous EU Member States, the greater their contribution. In order to reduce the financial burden on countries such as Greece or Italy, an agreement should be made to cover their costs from the budgets of all the Member States in proportion to their populations.

In 2016, an agreement on refoulement was reached between the EU and Turkey. The EU has pledged EUR 3 billion in support to Turkey in exchange for stopping the migration flows by returning migrants leaving Turkey back to the country. As little as a quarter of the promised sum was allocated to Turkey by the spring of this year. Even so, the number of migrants reaching the Greek islands decreased by 95 % as a result of the Turkey-EU agreement. According to the President of Turkey, receiving refugees came at a cost of EUR 9 billion for Turkey. Even if the EU would have to cover entire amount, this would still be more cost-effective than sheltering refugees in Europe. For example, Germany is estimated to have already spent EUR 20 billion on receiving refugees.

Similar arrangements could be pursued with other Mediterranean countries outside the EU. For instance, negotiations could be launched with Morocco on creating EU-funded buffer zones on its soil. Being Morocco’s main trade partner, EU could offer deeper integration into the common EU market in exchange for the permission to set up refugee camps on Morocco’s territory. In view of the benefits of the agreement with Turkey in addressing the refugee crisis, such an approach should produce a positive outcome.

There is no denying that we need to help people in poverty- and war-stricken countries. However, a simple truth is this: we cannot move everyone to Europe. As an economically most developed region, the EU should contribute to the economic development of less developed parts of the world. It could be done by abolishing EU’s protectionist agricultural policy. As a result, agricultural output of Africa and other less developed countries would be in a better position to compete on European markets, which would significantly improve the economic situation of the impoverished countries in question. The EU’s customs policy also needs a revision to the effect of cutting customs duties on certain goods from certain regions of the world.

One of the reasons why a significant number of countries in the world are in poverty is a low level of education therein. The EU, as a community of (relatively) prosperous countries, has a role to play in supporting education programmes in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. Over the several recent decades economies in countries such as China and Vietnam have surged. Even though economic growth in these countries was mainly propelled by economic reform, experience has shown that the less developed regions are not condemned to eternal poverty and (in some cases with the help of other countries) can develop successfully. The EU could enter into a dialogue with the leaders of countries in Africa and the Middle East to the effect of making sure they help to stop migrant flows in exchange for EU support.

As regards the successful implementation of migration policy, let us consider the case of Denmark. In 2015, the country published a series of anti-immigration advertisements in the Lebanese press, which was worth doing because of a high number of Syrian refugees staying in Lebanon. The Danish advertisements were meant to discourage potential asylum seekers from applying for asylum in Denmark. The advertisements sent a message on the tightening of immigration policies in Denmark, informing prospective seekers that all the people wishing to obtain a permanent residence permit in the country were required to learn Danish; people granted temporary asylum were not to bring their other family members to Denmark for a year; and welfare benefits for asylum-seekers were cut by half. In addition, the country also set up a specialised return centre for refugees, so that persons denied asylum would leave the Danish territory as soon as possible.

Let us compare the case with Sweden. In 2013, Sweden became the first European country to open its doors to all refugees willing to come there from Syria. As a result, the numbers of refugees willing to reside in Sweden is now far higher than that for Denmark. FYI: Denmark received 18 thousand applications for asylum in 2015; in Sweden, the figure stood at 163 thousand. It is obvious that, apart from other causes, a country’s profile and rhetoric are also very important factors that shape the scale of migration.

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