Wednesday, December 23, 2015

When will the EU lift the taboo on the Australian solution for the refugee and migrant crisis?

Published on CapX

So far, the EU’s response to the refugee and migration crisis, which witnessed  1.2 million illegal crossings into the EU this year, has failed. Seven EU Summits were held this year but unlike with the “Seven Summits” mountaineering challenge, not much glory was achieved with it.

One measure EU member states agreed  was an EU scheme to “relocate160,000 refugees who have already arrived in the passport-free Schengen-zone. So far however, they only managed to relocate 200 people, on top of a few 1000 resettlements from refugee camps outside of the EU. The fact that it’s obviously not possible to stop people from moving within the Schengen area didn’t stop the EU Commission from putting a lot of energy in the scheme, in the process even damaging the EU’s image in central- and Eastern European countries which were being outvoted on the issue. It seems impossible to explain the simple fact that in a passport-free zone means one can’t keep people in one country to either German Chancellor Angela Merkel, obsessed by the desire to relocate a number of refugees some say she has invited, or the EU Commission, obsessed by using any crisis to grab more powers even if it means tarnishing the EU’s reputation.

A second measure was the creation of so-called “hotspots”,  EU-run reception centres in Italy and Greece, where migrants and refugees would be identified and fingerprinted.  So far, only two are functioning and the experience can’t be called successful: apart from the fact that they’re overcrowded, they also seem unable to make sure all arriving refugees actually register there.

Now the EU’s focus has shifted to create a new EU border and coast guard force, basically replacing current EU border agency Frontex. The EU Commission even dared to propose that the force would be allowed to operate on the territory of a member state which doesn’t want this, although this “invasion clause” is facing a lot of opposition from certain member states, with Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski complaining: “There would be an undemocratic structure reporting to no one knows who.”

More border guards in itself won’t prevent people from being able to just continue their journey once they have made it to a Greek island, for example Lesbos. When one rewards refugees who risk their lives by allowing them to just continue travel and not await their asylum application, it’s only logical that ever more people are going to try to make the dangerous journey. There are reports that Greece has transported refugees from the Greek islands to the mainland. Also, the efforts of the Italian Navy and multilateral Operation Triton to save people from drowning in the waters between Libya and Italy should be lauded, but the fact that these people are being transferred to the Italian mainland gives them an incentive to make the risky journey. This year, the UN reckons 706 people have died trying to reach Greece, 2,889 people trying to reach Italy and 100 trying to reach Spain.


There is an alternative. Unlike the EU, Australia has created a safe shelter outside of its territory to divert those attempting to make it to Australia illegally. Therefore, the country has closed a deal with Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The EU has no such deal with any third country. It can only choose between pushing back migrants and refugees to unsafe countries (or countries unwilling to take them back, like Turkey) or rewarding them for taking huge risks by bringing them to the EU’s mainland, which unintentionally becomes a ferry service for human smugglers.

Since Australia’s policy was implemented, there has been criticism of the conditions in the refugee camps, where also several people have died in isolated instances, but only a limited number of boats were caught trying to make the journey to Australia. Importantly, only one single death has been reported while no asylum-seeker boats have managed to arrive. Meanwhile, in the EU, 3,695 people have been dying this year, which means more than 70 every week, and that’s only those on record. That’s not including the 23,000 people which would have lost their lives in the last 15 years while attempting to reach Europe before this crisis.

Even if it may have been easier for Australia to do this, one shouldn’t forget that the country also witnessed disasters with hundreds dying at sea before implementing its successful policy. If only the EU would manage to half the number of people dying at sea, that would already be a massive step forward.

One would therefore expect the EU to consider this approach, preferably without repeating Australia’s mistake of providing bad conditions in its off-shore refugee shelters. Instead, Australia’s is solution has been quickly brushed off the table by the EU Commission, claiming that it wouldn’t be in line with the international legal principle of non-refoulement", which forbids forced return. That’s a questionable claim, given that people would be sent to an off-shore refugee shelter actually owned by EU states where they would retain fully the right to apply for asylum, unlike what’s the case currently in the EU’s “hotspots”, where respect for asylum seekers' rights is doubtful.

The EU could just perfectly copy the good aspects of Australia’s solution (create an offshore refugee shelter) while avoiding the bad aspects (bad conditions in refugee shelters). Germany’s own refugee shelters aren’t exactly a shining example of good governance, so it would be even better to try to set up not just an offshore refugee shelter for refugees but a proper city for refugees, governed by officials from countries with a high degree of rule of law. This solution, which I have dubbed “free havens”, has also been made by US business man Jason Buzi, who wants to give refugees their own Refugee Nation, by prominent US academics Anne-Marie Slaughter and Paul Romer and by Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, the 10th richest man in Africa, who  has offered to buy an island off Italy or Greece in order to rehouse hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other conflicts.
Obviously a major challenge would be to find a proper location, either within EU territory or outside of it. If an Egyptian businessman manages to identify a number of – naturally empty – islands, it may be feasible within the EU’s borders. Alternatively, one of the world’s many uninhabited places would be an option. It may cost a lot, but so does the current approach, which may ultimately cost Germany alone up to 900 billion euro according to some of the wilder estimates.

Even this wouldn’t solve everything, given that at the beginning of this year, according to EU border agency Frontex, “most of those  who currently reside in the EU illegally, originally entered in possession of valid travel documents and a visa whose validity period they have since overstayed”.  That’s also one reason why it wouldn’t make sense to abolish Schengen, which brings great personal and economic benefits of passport-free travel for citizens and companies. Neither should Schengen be the main reason for European countries to cooperate on border control. Refugees make it into Schengen while entering Greece, and then immediately leave the passport-free zone again when crossing the Balkans. The reason why European countries must cooperate here is due to the simple fact they share a natural sea border: the Mediterranean. Even if Greece and Italy would be kicked out of Schengen, it would make sense to help them guard Europe’s natural sea border.

Former Australian PM Tony Abbott has summarized it as follows: "If you want to keep life safe, you've got to keep the boats stopped." He has the facts on his side and slowly even the EU is somehow stumbling towards this solution. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo boasted after last week’s Summit that she had convinced the other EU leaders that “the solutions lie beyond, not within the EU’s borders.” After the failing attempt to relocate people within a passport-free zone we’ll probably now just have to wait for the EU to figure out that rewarding people who manage to cross the border with the right to continue their journey will undo all efforts to increase the number of border patrols. Whatever one thinks of the Australian solution: it deserves to be considered due to its success in terms of almost completely avoiding people dying at sea, certainly in the face of the tragic failure of the EU in this regard.

Pieter Cleppe represents independent think tank Open Europe in Brussels