On October 24, the European Commission (EC) unveiled its working program for 2018, and once again it completely avoids using terminology such as “refugees” or “asylum seekers.” While this does not necessarily mean that Europe is giving up on trying to improve the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), it points to a larger problem of officials being unable or unwilling to properly address the needs of those groups seeking protection. Furthermore, the 2018 Working Program indicates that the European Union (EU) is employing the wrong approach in trying to solve the problem posed by the large influx of refugees in the last three years, both from a political and humanitarian point of view. The mistakes made thus far consist largely of framing the issue incorrectly, which has greatly limited the ability of the EU to respond to this crisis.
The proposed reforms to CEAS remain on the EC’s agenda as leftover initiatives from 2017, whose goal is now to be completed by December of next year. Even in this document, however, the terms “refugee” or “asylum seeker” are almost completely avoided. The decision to reform the Asylum System was a result of the 2016 Joint Declaration of EU’s Legislative Priorities, and it is here that the core problem becomes evident: the reform is treated as a reform to migration policy. The EC began this process from the erroneous assumption that asylum seekers are equivalent to migrants. Attending to the needs of those seeking protection from war, violence, persecution, climate change, or any other danger, can only be done in a manner that is completely detached from regular migration policies.
As early as 2005, the UNHCR has warned that blurring the line between migrants and asylum seekers is not only factually wrong, but detrimental to refugee protection. According to international standards established over half a century ago, an asylum seeker, unlike a regular migrant, cannot be punished or sent back to his country of origin for attempting to enter any country illegally—be it with fake documents, by illegitimate means of transportation, or with the aid of people smugglers. This is only one example of the differences between these two groups. By treating them equally in their policies, the EU is creating a framing whereby it is assumed that regulations applied to economic migrants can also be applied to asylum seekers or refugees. The ramifications are uneven. Rejecting the claim of an economic migrant to enter any member state of the EU has a direct impact on his or her standard of living (and perhaps wellbeing in the long-term); rejecting the claim of an asylum seeker, on the other hand, has a direct impact on their chance of survival.
In spite of this, the EC still treats all migration flows as one homogenous phenomenon. To make matters worse, far-right parties have capitalized on Europe’s mistakes and the mishandling of the 2015 crisis, and have politically mobilized nationalistic and euro-skeptic sentiments. In October alone, Austria has undergone an election where a right-wing party has emerged victorious by tapping into anti-migrant sentiment. Echoing the discourse of officials in Brussels and Strasbourg, the debate placed great emphasis on refugees, treating them merely as a subgroup of migrants. Moreover, following Austria’s lead, the euro-skeptic ANO Party has won the elections in the Czech Republic, receiving almost twice as many votes as their closest rivals. For the EC to suddenly start addressing asylum seekers and refugees by name in its working documents, it would be taking a great risk of giving more ammunition for other movements across Europe that could threaten the stability of the Union. This creates a quandary: conflating the terminology of asylum seekers and refugees is problematic, but addressing it now would intensify the problems created by their initial mistakes.
The EU needs to reframe the problem. The EC needs to stop and re-asses their definition of what asylum policy reform truly is, and more importantly, what it is not. Only by making it clear that it understands the difference between migrants and refugees can they retake control of the discussion. This, nevertheless, is far from easy. Other than admitting to implementing counter-productive policies and strategies, the EC would also have to slowly—and correctly—reform a system that has been wrongly categorized for decades. First and foremost, the EC needs to communicate that it is devoting its undivided attention to the matter of asylum seekers and refugees. The responsibility for developing policies in this field is given to the Directorate General (DG) for “Migration and Home Affairs.” The strongest message would come from renaming this DG for “Migration, Asylum, and Home Affairs,” clearly emphasizing asylum policy. The new staff and leadership would have to be clearly delineated from those dealing with other migration policies.
Only by first taking these steps can the EC begin to contend with the issues associated with asylum policy in the EU.