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Has the EU really solved its refugee crisis?

Migrants arrive at the Austrian-German border near Passau, October 2015. Michaela Rehle/REUTERS

Has the EU really solved its refugee crisis?

Less than two years after the European Union was confronted with an unprecedented influx of refugees, during which over a million people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond flooded Europe’s borders, EU officials are saying that the migrant crisis is under control.

For this, the EU credits its March 2016 agreement with Turkey, which was intended to curb entries into Greece via the Mediterranean Sea and end onward movement into Europe across the western Balkan route.

At the time, one European Commission senior policy official said, the agreement, which stipulated that Greece send back to Turkey those migrants who do not apply for asylum or have their claim rejected, was seen as necessary to “ensure the future of the EU”, where the migrant situation had become “explosive”.

Just over a year later, crossings on the eastern Mediterranean have dropped from a weekly peak of 1,400 in early March 2016 to a weekly average of 27 for March 2017. The western Balkan path into Europe has seen a similarly significant decrease in crossings, from 764,000 in 2015 to 123,000 in 2016.

Solving the crisis

Declarations of success have come despite criticisms by NGOs and experts, who have condemned the Turkey deal as an outsourcing of responsibility.

This tactic may have stopped refugees from reaching France, Germany and the United Kingdom, at least temporarily, but it has not resolved the crisis at Europe’s borders.

Crossings of the central Mediterranean, which predominantly impact Italy, are actually on the rise, and the stalemate over relocation of refugees from Greece to Turkey, a key part of the 2016 deal, continues.

A new report by the German think tank Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) shows that EU states along the western Balkan route are systematically – and violently – pushing back migrants. This route, which was at the forefront of the 2015 crisis, remains active, but it has slightly changed: movement has been redirected from Greece to Bulgaria’s land border with Turkey.

In 2016, 18,000 migrants crossed into Bulgaria.

According to the FES report, Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia have responded to the new influx by intensifying “efforts to prevent entry into their territory”.

Hungary has further restricted its asylum legislation, the report indicates, which “taken together with the physical push-backs, amount to the systematic violation of human rights” in the country, which already has the EU on edge with its ongoing crackdown on civil liberties.

Attempts to forcibly close the borders in Hungary and Bulgaria have created a bottleneck in Serbia, where about 10,000 refugees and migrants are reported to be stuck.

Border tightening across the western Balkan region has also led to an increase in the use of illicit smuggling networks, which is precisely the problem the EU claims it is seeking to tackle.

Meanwhile, the stalemate on relocation has left thousands of refugees trapped on the Greek islands. Thus far, only 1,000 people have been sent back to Turkey.

With serious overcrowding and a lack of meaningful access to asylum procedures, the security situation in Greece is increasingly dire. Even with the support of EU officers, the backlog of applications remains well over 30,000, with one source reporting processing waits of up to 13 years.

Outsourcing responsibility

The EU’s support for a possible agreement with Libya, which would include training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard to prevent departures from its shores, displays a lamentable lack of lesson-learning.

Italy had a similar deal with Libya in 2008, which collapsed with the Arab Spring. This directly contributed to the sharp rise in migration flows from 2011.

Nor is the Turkey agreement the first time that the EU has tried to outsource responsibility.

The so-called Dublin Regulation, which from 2003 designated asylum responsibility to the country of entry, quickly became unsustainable, with Italy and Greece unable to tackle the massive influx.

This led to a surge of migrants toward northern European countries. By the end of 2015, none of the EU’s 28 states, apart from Germany, was willing to accept relocated refugees.

By turning a blind eye to the problems that the 2016 Turkey agreement is wreaking on Balkan states, the European Commission will again struggle to formulate a cohesive shared response to the ongoing migration crisis. As one European Parliament official stated, the tendency instead has been “to try and keep the problem out of the EU as much as possible so as to not have to deal with the situation.”

But one European Commission policy official from the Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs suggested in an interview that “containing the numbers through third country deals is a precondition” for all EU states to determine a common policy. Having “more predictable numbers”, she said, would give national governments the “breathing space” needed to sell voters on the need for a stronger, common approach to refugee arrivals.

But with the EU in a deadlock over the new Dublin negotiations, it is unclear whether member states can actually agree on a plan to effectively share responsibility in the continuing migrant crisis. Frontline member states are acutely concerned that the outcome of current talks may worsen the situation by further overburdening them.

Austrian police guard migrants as they wait to cross the Slovenia-Austria border in Sentilj, Slovenia, October 2015. Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters

Inaction is not an option. Under international human rights law, European states are obliged to ensure safe and effective access to their territory for those fleeing persecution. It also has a legal mandate to find a solution: article 80 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union requires the bloc to pursue a common asylum policy grounded in the “principle of solidarity and the fair sharing of responsibility”.

The recent decision by the Commission to open sanction procedures against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for failing to comply with the relocation decision is a step in this direction.

Confronting recalcitrant member states – perhaps by cutting off access to EU funding – the bloc can halt the current a la carte mentality that leads states to pick and choose when they share responsibility. Because, when it comes to Europe’s migration crisis, as one European Parliament member for the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs put it, “either you get with the programme or you’re not in the club”.