This article examines EU’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Its purpose is to highlight the limits and inadequacies of the EU’s asylum and migration policy, as well as to suggest medium and long term measures. The article argues that the massive arrival of refugees, mainly from Syria, and immigrants without legal documents by different countries, strongly affects European societies, as well as the internal political situation in almost all countries-members of the European Union, putting to the test the Schengen Treaty and the Dublin rules. In terms of EU asylum and migration policy, the author notes that EU needs a robust and effective system for sustainable migration management for the future that is fair for host societies and EU citizens as well as for third country nationals and countries of origin and transit. For it to work, this system must be comprehensive, and grounded on the principles of responsibility and solidarity.

SETTING THE SCENE 

Conflict and instability in countries of origin, economic inequalities and poverty, overpopulation and demographic dynamics, unemployment, lack of security and weak levels of democracy and natural disasters as push factors of migration, has triggered in recent years a sharp increase in mixed migratory flows. The number of immigrants and refugees who crossed the border of Europe quadruple in 2015, compared with 2014. The total number of immigrants and refugees who reached Europe by land and sea was 280,000 in 2014, while in 2015, it is estimated that one million people arrived in Europe. The majority of immigrants and refugees came from the Mediterranean, with more than 800,000 people crossing the Aegean to reach Greek shores from Turkey. According to the International Organization for Migration, 13 times more people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in January 2016 compared to those of January 2015, while 368 people died during just the first month of 2016.

The current refugee crisis, although foreseeable, occurred because of the absence of a common asylum policy. The Dublin system has disproportionally placed the burden of processing asylum applications on a number of frontline states. The crisis relocation and resettlement mechanism is a concrete example of limited cooperation based on solidarity and responsibility.

Tens of thousands innocent civilians have been killed and millions of people have been internally displaced or applied for asylum since 2011 as a consequence of the Syrian Conflict – “the worst refugee crisis since World War II”.  In early September 2015, the UN announced that 7 million had been internally displaced and more than 4 million had left the country, from a pre-war population of 22 million. The neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt have received the largest numbers of refugees.   

THE EU ASYLUM SYSTEM UNDER PRESSURE

Since 1999, the EU has been committed to create a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and improve the current framework. The EU’s migration and asylum policy builds on EU legislation and legal instruments, political instruments, operational support and capacity-building, and the wide range of programmes and projects support that is made available to numerous stakeholders, including civil society, migrant associations and international organizations. Over the last three decades, harmonization towards common EU migration and asylum policy has become one of the most important issues of European integration. New EU rules have now been agreed (The Revised Asylum Procedures Directive, The Revised Reception Conditions Directive, The Revised Qualification Directive, The Revised Dublin Regulation and The Revised Eurodac), setting out common high standards and stronger co-operation to ensure that asylum seekers are treated equally in an open and fair system. However, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean has revealed much about the structural limitations of EU migration policy and the tools at its disposal as well as put the spotlight on immediate needs. 

In more detail, at EU level, the massive arrival of refugees, mainly from Syria, and immigrants without legal documents by different countries, strongly affects European societies, as well as the internal political situation in almost all member-states of the European Union, putting to the test the Schengen Treaty and the Dublin rules and highlighting the limits and inadequacies, not only for the EU’s foreign and security policy but for the national policies of the Member States as well. The European asylum system is under significant pressure. The current refugee crisis, although foreseeable, occurred because of the absence of a common asylum policy. The Dublin system has disproportionally placed the burden of processing asylum applications on a number of frontline states. The crisis relocation and resettlement mechanism is a concrete example of limited cooperation based on solidarity and responsibility.

The overall objective is to move from a system which by design or poor implementation places a disproportionate responsibility on certain Member States and encourages uncontrolled and irregular migratory flows to a fairer system which provides orderly and safe pathways to the EU for third country nationals in need of protection or who can contribute to the EU’s economic development and demographic challenges. 

The agreed plan of 18 March 2016 between the European Union and Turkey has the ambitious goal to stop the refugee and migration flows from Turkey to Greece/EU and prevent the collapse of the Schengen zone. The reality, however, is that the implementation of the agreement that began on April 4 2016, faces serious problems for a number of legal, political and logistical reasons, as it is an agreement characterized as highly complex, extremely technical, and difficult with controversial legal points. There is no doubt that, since the EU-Turkey Agreement, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of irregular migrants and asylum seekers crossing from Turkey into Greece. However, according to the first report on the progress made in the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal, only 325 persons have been returned from Greece to Turkey, and just 74 Syrians asylum seekers were resettled from Turkey to EU.6 ­­Additionally, even though the existing channels are now closed, there is always the danger of migration flows being re-routed: with the closing of the Western Balkans Route, the illegal networks of traffickers might seek an alternative route passing from Greece through Albania to EU, going back through South Italy and/or finally going from Turkey through the Black Sea to Bulgaria.       

CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS 

Migration has been and will continue to be one of the defining issues for Europe in the coming decades. Underlying trends in economic development, climate change, globalization in transport and communications, war and instability in neighboring regions, all mean that the number of refugees and immigrants is not expected to diminish in the near future. The overall objective is to move from a system which by design or poor implementation places a disproportionate responsibility on certain Member States and encourages uncontrolled and irregular migratory flows to a fairer system which provides orderly and safe pathways to the EU for third country nationals in need of protection or who can contribute to the EU’s economic development and demographic challenges. The EU needs a robust and effective system for sustainable migration management for the future that is fair for host societies and EU citizens as well as for third country nationals and countries of origin and transit. For it to work, this system must be comprehensive, and grounded on the principles of responsibility and solidarity.

In an era of lacking leadership in Europe, the refugee crisis compels Europeans to face a number of inconvenient truths and misguided perceptions, especially “its inability to influence geopolitical developments in and around Syria, the prospect of greater migration flows and the EU’s limited capacity or willingness for absorption, and the EU’s inadequate ability to efficiently protect its external borders”. 

This means a change in approach and fresh thinking. In fact, the EU’s current approach is the result of the EU’s limited powers on migration and asylum matters. The inability to act as a Union, however, also results in confusion when it comes to handling emergencies such as those in the Mediterranean region or the Middle East. The challenge this poses is to find a way of responding to this problem as a united and integrated Europe. Consequently, the EU migration and asylum policy should have a medium-long term vision as well as a holistic and comprehensive approach. It is suggested that there is a need for a new system for allocating asylum applications in the EU based on a distribution key reflecting the relative size, wealth and absorption capacities of the Member States; a genuine common EU asylum system by transforming the current Asylum Procedures Directive into a new Regulation, establishing a single common asylum procedure in the EU, as well as by replacing the current Qualification Directive by a Regulation, setting uniform rules on the procedures and rights to be offered to beneficiaries of international protection; a stronger mandate for EASO so that it can play a new policy-implementing role and a strengthened operational role. 

In an era of lacking leadership in Europe, the refugee crisis compels Europeans to face a number of inconvenient truths and misguided perceptions, especially “its inability to influence geopolitical developments in and around Syria, the prospect of greater migration flows and the EU’s limited capacity or willingness for absorption, and the EU’s inadequate ability to efficiently protect its external borders”. Taking into account the rising movement of jihadist fighters, the alarming threat of radicalization, as well as the fear that the immigration flows could be manipulated by terrorist organizations, and particularly the ISIS, the author notes that, “no common European asylum and refugee policy can be expected until Europe’s borders are adequately managed and the number of migrants reaching its shores falls. Europe’s borders can be secured only through a concentric (security) circles approach: outside Europe, at Europe’s borders themselves and within Europe’s borders”. All in all, EU should not wait for the next crisis to equip itself with greater external policy resources. “European citizens will shift away from the current feeling of disa­ffection and commit to the Union only if the EU changes course and positions itself”.