EU Members Take Unilateral Action on Migrant Flows

6 MINS READJan 22, 2016 | 00:12 GMT

Austria's plan to introduce an annual quota of asylum applications and Germany's decision to extend its border controls indefinitely will force governments along the Balkan migration route to introduce similar measures. The European Commission will continue pushing for a pan-European solution to the refugee crisis, but the Continent's reaction will be a combination of poorly enforced EU rules and unilateral policies enacted by governments trying to make their countries less attractive to asylum seekers.

Austria announced Jan. 20 that it would accept only 37,500 asylum applications in 2016. Last year, the country received some 90,000 applications. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann admitted that Vienna has not decided what to do after the limit is reached. The number of people seeking asylum in Austria grew significantly in 2015, but Vienna's situation is not particularly desperate. Austria serves mostly as a transit state, since most refugees want to go to Germany or Sweden. However, the limit on asylum applications will have far-reaching repercussions.

Possibly influenced by Austria, Germany announced Jan. 21 that it would extend controls on its southern border indefinitely. Germany, Europe's largest economy, received more than 1 million asylum seekers in 2015. Months of political and social pressure to implement border controls and asylum quotas have led Chancellor Angela Merkel to look for ways reduce the influx of migrants.

Berlin's original strategy had two parts: cooperate with Turkey to prevent migrants from entering the European Union and support Brussels' proposal to distribute asylum seekers across the European Union. But so far, Turkey has not made any substantial moves to keep migrants from entering Europe — Ankara's recent announcement that Syrian refugees will be given the right to work has not yet proved effective — and EU members have ignored the relocation plan. The failure of this strategy created friction within Germany's government and forced Berlin to tighten its migration rules.

Germany and Austria's announcements will have effects elsewhere in Europe. Last year, governments along the Balkan migration route introduced border controls, and some even built border fences to reduce the flow of asylum seekers. In the days ahead, Western Balkan nations such as Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia will have to enhance border controls again. New fences and migration quotas cannot be ruled out. And as the main Balkan route becomes harder to cross, asylum seekers could be forced to look for alternative routes, creating larger migrant flows in countries such as Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

The migrant crisis will reach a new climax in March or April, when weather conditions improve and more people try to enter the European Union. Migrants who encounter bottlenecks along the Balkan route could protest at international borders or even clash with locals. Greece's situation will be particularly difficult because migrants entering through Turkey probably will find it harder to keep moving northward from Greek territory.

In the long run, the immigration controls in the Western Balkans could lead to a redirection of migrant flows. In 2015, the eastern Mediterranean route, from Turkey to Greece, replaced the central Mediterranean route, from Libya to Italy, as the main passage for migrants. Stricter border controls along the Balkan route could encourage some migrants to opt for the central Mediterranean route again. This is one of the reasons for Italy's diplomatic efforts to create a stable government in Libya: Rome wants a working Libyan government to combat human trafficking rings and keep asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is still trying to find an EU-wide solution. The commission allegedly wants to eliminate the so-called Dublin system, according to which migrants have to apply for asylum in the country of first entry to the European Union. The system has been broken for a long time; many asylum seekers entering the bloc through Greece or Italy still move to countries such as Germany or Sweden to file their applications. In some cases, this happens with the permission of local governments. In Southern Europe, immigration officials often fail to fingerprint migrants, allowing them to go elsewhere. Northern European countries also fail to enforce the rules; only a small fraction of irregular migrants are deported. Deportations are difficult to enforce because of massive bureaucracy, lack of resources and the fact that some migrants do not have reliable IDs showing their countries of origin while others hide from the authorities. In mid-2015, Berlin openly violated the Dublin system when it announced that all Syrian asylum seekers would be welcome in Germany.

The Dublin system is one of those EU policies that everybody sees is not working but nobody knows how to replace. Brussels' alleged proposal to impose a relocation scheme across the Continent probably would fail. After the European Union put forth a similar plan last year, only a handful of refugees have been relocated. Countries in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Hungary and Romania, fiercely criticized the idea last year and will oppose it again if the commission insists on it. Northern countries such as Denmark and Finland will probably oppose the plan as well. They are geographically far from the Mediterranean and Balkan migration routes and are interested in the preservation of rules that allow them to deport asylum seekers.

Since pan-European plans are failing, EU members are making unilateral decisions to cope with the flow of asylum seekers. Northern European countries have two basic challenges: to integrate the asylum seekers who arrived since the beginning of the crisis, and to become less attractive for future migrants. In recent months, several governments in Northern Europe have passed regulations to shorten the application period and to facilitate refugee access to the labor market. But they have also extended the waiting period for family reunifications and limited social benefits for refugees. More important, they have reintroduced border controls and increased deportations.

For example, on Jan. 21 the Danish legislature passed a controversial law that delays family reunifications from one to three years and allows authorities to seize asylum seekers' cash exceeding 10,000 kroner (about $1,400). In late November, Sweden announced that asylum seekers would be given shorter residence permits and that stricter controls would be imposed on trains arriving from Denmark. For weeks, Germany has been rejecting a larger number of migrants entering from Austria and expanding its list of "safe" countries of origin whose nationals can be deported (a decision that was particularly harmful for asylum seekers from countries such as Albania and Kosovo).

EU members will probably approve some kind of unionwide policies meant to redesign the bloc's rules on migration and engage with countries such as Turkey and Libya. However, enforcement will remain problematic. As a result, each country will continue to take individual actions to become less attractive to asylum seekers. These measures alone will not be enough to reduce the influx of migrants, but they are the most probable course of action in a continental bloc where consensus has become more elusive.

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