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The New EU Approach to Relocation of Refugees: Can it work, is it just?

Authors: Sergio Carrera and Daniel Gros, Center for European Policy Studies
Oct 6, 2015

African Union Expert Brief Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian policemen to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, September 10, 2015 (Yannis Behrakis/Courtesy Reuters).


Few issues arouse such strong passions as immigration, where concrete economic and social challenges overlap with the fundamental concept of national identity. It is thus not surprising that Europe is having difficulty in coming to grips with the current refugee crisis.

Until now EU countries were operating under the so-called Dublin system, through which frontier countries have to bear all the responsibility of dealing with asylum seekers (registering them, providing support, and processing asylum applications). This system is not tenable when hundreds of thousands of arrivals overwhelm the capacity of EU frontier states like Greece and Italy.

The EU must move toward a fairer sharing of the responsibility. The new approach asks that asylum seekers be distributed across different member countries according to economic, demographic, and structural capacities to integrate the migrants, while taking into account, to the extent possible, their private and family links with specific member states.

Recent decisions go in this direction. At the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council Meeting of September 22, 2015, European heads of state decided to relocate 120,000 refugees from Greece and Italy). Legally speaking, this new approach to relocation introduces only a temporary derogation from the Dublin asylum system. It foresees a mandatory distribution model among EU member states according to new distribution criteria, including the size of the population, the gross domestic product, the average number of past asylum applications, and unemployment rates.

This quota plan has been strongly criticized by several EU member states. Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia have been most vocal in expressing discontent. The facile argument against the EU Temporary Relocation System is that if all the asylum seekers want to go to Germany, one cannot forcibly send them to another country against their will. Poland’s former finance minister, Jacek Rowstoski, recently argued that imposing national quotas for refugees in the EU would be equivalent to building new walls because most of them are looking for opportunities in Germany, not Hungary or Poland.

But the argument that Schengen is incompatible with mandatory quotas does not correspond to reality. Refugees transferred to different member countries are likely to remain there because that is the only place where they have a right to social security benefits. By moving they would be without life support and could be sent back to their countries of origin. Those fleeing real danger have a human right to international protection and a minimum level of support to ensure that they can live with dignity. There are, of course, large differences in income and social benefits across EU nations, but even in the poorest member states a refugee will be safer and have a higher standard of living than in his or her home country or in a refugee camp in the Middle East. The poorest member state, Bulgaria, has a higher income per capita than oil-rich Iraq. And per capita income in one of the most vociferous opponent of quotas, Slovakia, is several times higher than that of Syria or Afghanistan. It would thus be unreasonable for those claiming the need for international protection to refuse relocation to another country, and it is unlikely that many would do so.

Those who depend on social security benefits will need to stay in the designated country of relocation. No walls will be needed to keep them somewhere because their right to social benefits will be linked to residence in that country. In this respect, the situation of relocated refugees is similar to that of legally resident non-EU nationals and even EU citizens. They also cannot move to other EU countries to look for a job or claim social security benefits.

After a certain period (usually five years) of legal residence in the EU, non-EU nationals obtain the right to move and seek work anywhere in the bloc. But the right of free movement is mainly the right to look for a job anywhere, not an unconditional right to claim social security benefits. This might imply that most of the asylum seekers “forcibly” resettled in Eastern Europe might still end up in Germany. But this should be welcomed: Germany’s working-age population is shrinking, and if refugees have skills that can be used in the German labor market they would only strengthen the German economy by getting a job there.

Another criticism of the recent quota system comes from the opposite side: This approach might force some refugees to reside where they might not want to go in the first place. But one could expect any new relocation system would be preferable to the current Dublin approach, which leaves no choice at all to refugees, leaving them stuck in the frontier country. While the new relocation system does not grant full freedom for asylum seekers to choose the most attractive destination in the EU, it does take into account the applicants’ potential for integration in the relocation state. Language skills and family, cultural, or social ties will have to be taken into account by national authorities when making the relocation decision. This criticism could be effectively addressed by following the European Parliament’s suggestion to include refugees’ preferences, as far as possible, among the new distribution criteria. An additional factor for people not to move elsewhere would be for all EU member states to ensure proper and humane reception conditions, a profound challenge for many EU States.

Eastern EU member states cannot claim that an unreasonable burden has been foisted on them by the new EU temporary relocation system. The number of applicants to be relocated in Slovakia is a mere eight hundred persons, hardly unbearable for a population of five million. Moreover, the Slovak government would receive 4.8 million euros (approximately $5.4 million) from the EU budget to defray the cost of housing and feeding these asylum seekers. This is on top of Slovakia’s share of an overall EU fund for the management of the migration crisis of several billions of euros. Moreover, beneficiaries will only include true refugees (i.e. nationals from countries for which the proportion of positive decisions granting international protection has been at least 75 percent, which currently includes Syrians, Iraqis, and Eritreans).

Refugees arriving in the EU cannot claim a right to the highest levels of social benefits available in the EU. But they have rights to speedy, individual, and fair assessments of their asylum applications and are entitled to proper reception conditions. To date, the performance of many member states in these areas falls far short of common EU standards. This may jeopardize the very operability of the entire EU relocation regime.

A priority for the EU should be therefore to strengthen the administrative and judicial capacities needed for a fair and efficient asylum system. The commission should also more vigorously enforce EU asylum law and the domestic implementation of the EU Reception Conditions Directive. This constitutes preconditions for any relocation system to be successful in practice. What might be needed in the end is a common EU asylum service, which would examine asylum applications and independently implement a new distribution key model of asylum seekers beyond the Dublin logic.

Many argue that the EU should also do more to address the root causes of the refugee crisis, namely the conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. There is little the EU could do to have an impact on violent internal conflicts such as those in Syria or Iraq. The weaknesses of the EU's foreign policy are well known, but the EU’s ability to influence events on the ground in the Middle East would remain limited even if member states suddenly were to agree to bundle their policies and capacities in one EU policy. Even the United States had to learn that sometimes intervention leads to chaos (as in Iraq and Libya) and some nonintervention leads to even worse results (as in Syria). Europe will need to get used to and prepare for a situation where its southern and southeastern flank remains highly unstable for the foreseeable future.

The recent wave of refugees from a troubled Middle East, South Asia, and Africa has exposed the weaknesses in the existing EU approach to dealing with asylum seekers. Profound changes are needed at the legal level and on the ground: The Dublin system must be fundamentally revisited. But independent of this, the reception conditions on the ground must be addressed urgently. Where member states do not have the administrative capacity to ensure minimum standards, a dedicated EU service could be the most appropriate answer.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.