Friday, June 3, 2016

Austria and Europe’s Migration Crisis, Part II

Major refugee routes to Europe. Source: Deutsche Welle
Major refugee routes to Europe. Source: Deutsche Welle
A few days ago, I posted the first part of an extended email exchange between me and one of our members, Lilibellt, an Austrian native who now lives in Vienna. Here’s the next part. It gets quite detailed, but even so, we’ve barely begun to discuss the other massive crisis facing Europe. Still, keep Putin in mind as you read this. Peter Dickinson argued in Newsweek yesterday that Europe is still in complete denial about it:
Many inside the EU seem unwilling to admit the 25-year honeymoon period of European peace and prosperity since 1991 is over. They cling to the idea of a return to the old “business as usual” status quo, and appear to believe Russian aggression is only an issue for Moscow’s immediate neighbors.
This policy of obstinate denial is not only morally bankrupt—it also encourages the Kremlin to escalate a hybrid war campaign designed to reverse the results of the Cold War and break up the European Union itself.
We discuss the Putin problem in subsequent email exchanges, which we’ll post soon. I just note it to place what follows in its larger context. Europe has no shortage of problems right now.
Claire: What, specifically, do you think should be done to stem the influx of migrants?
Lilibellt: Four things.
First: Restore lawfulness and secure the Schengen borders. The Schengen-Dublin dilemma shows the chaotic state of Europe at its best. My layman’s understanding of the Dublin III agreement and the Schengen Treaty is that in order to maintain open borders among the Schengen members, migrants and refugees must be processed in the countries they enter first. According to the safe third country rule, people who illegally enter the inland of the Schengen area have to be sent back to the country, within the Schengen territory, whose borders they most recently crossed–
Claire: —Dublin III seems to be based on the Geneva Convention and Protocols. One thing I noticed in it is this:
A process for early warning, preparedness and management of asylum crises serving to prevent a deterioration in, or the collapse of, asylum systems, with EASO playing a key role using its powers under Regulation (EU) No 439/2010, should be established in order to ensure robust cooperation within the framework of this Regulation and to develop mutual trust among Member States with respect to asylum policy.
What do the words “solidarity” and “trust” mean in concrete, legal terms? I don’t know and doubt anyone does. But according to (EU) No 439/2010,
For Member States which are faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on their asylum and reception systems, due in particular to their geographical or demographic situation, the Support Office should support the development of solidarity within the Union to promote a better relocation of beneficiaries of international protection between Member States, while ensuring that asylum and reception systems are not abused. [My emphasis]
Austria is definitely a “member state faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on its asylum and reception systems, due in particular to its geographical or demographic situation,” right? Problem is, there are many ways that clause could be interpreted. It could support Austria’s demand that Greece and Italy better control their borders; but it could just as easily support a Greek or an Italian demand that Austria accept more asylum-seekers and process them on Austrian territory. After all, Greece and Italy too have been “faced with specific and disproportionate pressures.”
But before we look at the legal details, let’s focus a bit on the history of the crisis and the region’s geography. It’s important to visualize how complex it is to secure every border by which someone could enter Europe, and how much cooperation it would require among countries that still have no established common mechanism for border control–
Lilibellt: –it’s easy to see that European countries with territory bordering non-Schengen countries were at a great disadvantage in the summer of 2015, when the influx of refugees and migrants increased dramatically. Hundreds of people killed in the Mediterranean. Thousands upon thousands of refugees in Lampedusa and Idomeni, and no end in sight. As far as I know, the EU made no concerted effort to help countries like Italy, Greece, or Hungary deal with this huge number of asylum-seekers. Instead, it turned a blind eye the way Italy and Greece were openly violating the Dublin agreement by not registering asylum-seekers and just letting them move on.
Hungary began building a border fence, first along the border with Serbia, then along the borders of Croatia, Slovenia, and Romania. Hungary was ferociously criticized for its policies both by the German and the Austrian chancellors. The Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, likened Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s refugee policies to Nazi deportations. Maybe I’m not savvy enough, but to me it looked as if unlike Italy and Greece, Hungary had secured its borders — and in doing so, had complied with its duty as the external frontier of the Schengen Area.
Another major turning point was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s press conference in the late summer of 2015, in which she announced Germany’s unilateral suspension of Dublin III for Syrian refugees, which meant, de facto, that all refugees and all migrants could come to Germany directly without threat of being deported to a safe third country (such as Hungary or Greece). But if there’s no registration at the Schengen borders, how do you know who’s a Syrian refugee and who’s not until they’re in Germany? Her message, “We can do it,” was heard loud and clear around the world, especially today, with social media and the Internet. So Syrian refugees, and refugees from other countries who were pretending to be Syrians, and migrants who had conveniently lost their papers — they all set off for Germany. By now I’ve lost track of which countries have suspended Dublin III and Schengen.
This is what I meant when I quoted Weber. An ethics of responsibility would demand from politicians non-ambiguous formulations, hard distinctions, and the definition of a clear, feasible objective with all the hard measures and heartbreaking pictures that come with it. Ethics of opinion, on the other hand, are laws and treaties as vague as Dublin III, or Merkel’s announcements that “We can do it,” or her references to the inviolability of human dignity (Article 1 Par. 1 of the German Basic Law – which now applies to the whole world, in effect), or, “There is no legal limit to the number of asylum seekers in Germany.” That may be correct according to the Geneva Convention, but it is certainly not feasible in reality. Her speeches don’t give people any specific answers, but they give them the good feeling of being on the right side of history (this time around). All the hard measures will be taken and the heartbreaking pictures will surface anyway, and maybe more so, but who cares, we had the right intentions!
Austria, in any case, reinstated border controls in January–
Claire: –how well did that work? What was the daily influx before that, and what was it after that?
Source: Austrian Interior Ministry
Lilibellt: As far as I can tell, along with other measures, it improved the situation. The trend peaked at 12,000 asylum requests per month in October 2015, and now it’s reversing. Last April there were “only” 4,000 asylum requests. But it could also be seasonal, we can’t draw conclusions until the end of summer.
Claire: What does it take, in terms of manpower and resources, physically to patrol all of Austria’s borders?
Lilibellt: Hard to say, because I’m no expert. It seems to me that the mountainous provinces of Vorarlberg, Tyrol, and Carinthia have natural barriers against the south (Italy and Slovenia) and the west (Switzerland), and aren’t too hard to secure save for the mountain passes. For the time being, border controls in some places, for example at the Brenner Pass between Tyrol and Italy, have been suspended. But security measures are in place if needed. There’s a realistic possibility that Italy will hold up its end of a recent agreement to prevent illegal aliens from crossing the border to Austria, if only out of self-interest. If Austria reinstates border controls at the Brenner Pass, it would hurt Italian tourism. In the east, Hungary has already secured its borders, so I’m not sure if Austria needs to take any further measures. Until now, there seemingly hasn’t been a large number of refugees coming from the north. Slovakia, like Hungary, is a member of the Visegrad Group, which opposes refugee quotas for Europe.
That leaves a non-mountainous area of 90 miles on the southern border, with Slovenia. The government has built a fence there. In the winter there were almost no asylum requests. All in all, I think 90 miles is manageable, even for a little country like Austria. But as we discuss later on, I don’t think border walls or fences are the best way to deter migrants. Far more important is the restriction of benefits. If you have the right incentives, you can finally deal only with the real refugees.
Claire: Given that steps have been taken to secure the border, and given that the flow of migrants fell sharply as a result, why were you so unhappy with the government’s performance? Is your chief complaint now a matter of the ease with which criminals can escape deportation? Or was your vote intended to send, in a sense, a vote of no-confidence to Merkel and the rest of the EU, a warning that they need to get it together?
Lilibellt: Because like many others, I suspected that these measures were primarily taken to avoid an FPÖ president. The numbers of asylum requests are down, but like I said before, really conclusive data won’t be available until the end of summer. If you look at the graph, you see that the numbers of asylum requests this spring compared to last year are the same, the decrease is only in comparison to previous (warmer) months. The unusual numbers in May and June may just be because spring was unusually cold this year.
There are no longer crowds of refugees waiting at the stations for trains to Germany, or waiting, and even sleeping, in front of the interior ministry, or the social services, or — for example — in front of the house I live in. The distribution of the refugees has definitely improved.
But between the two rounds of the elections, Chancellor Faymann resigned and a new government was sworn in. And just yesterday, the new chancellor, Christian Kern, backtracked on proposals to limit asylum requests. The new state secretary for immigration, Muna Duzdar, who’s of Palestinian origin, is a strong open-border supporter. Exactly what I expected if [Green Party candidate] Alexander Van der Bellen won the presidential contest.
I voted for [the FPÖ candidate] Norbert Hofer because I wanted to avoid a situation like this, where the government continues ignoring half the people after the election. On top of that, large parts of the media, the president, and the government keep referring to FPÖ voters as resentful, unsuccessful, poorly educated, misinformed xenophobes in need of their guidance and understanding. A highly dangerous mix that will fuel resentment and radicalization on the other side even more. I really worry. The first refugee camp on Austrian soil — uninhabited, they were going to arrive soon! — has already been burnt down. Until now, arson like this only happened in Germany.
Let me repeat that I would rather see stronger measures taken to send rejected asylum-seekers back home, and separate refugees from migrants in a faster, less bureaucratic way, than to limit to asylum requests. In short, it should be about the real refugees and not (yet) about the limitation of access for real refugees. But the concern I mentioned in the first part of our interview — that last summer’s failure to distinguish between migrants and refugees would harm the real refugees — has already come to pass. Germany is examining the possibility of declaring an official limit to the number of asylum applications it will process this year. Austria already declared one. Well done, EU and Frau Merkel.
And just as Dublin and Schengen are incoherent, the same is true of the European legal system. So there’s an appeal process for asylum-seekers not only at a national level, but the European one; there are European Court rulings that refugees can’t be sent back to Greece and Hungary, because they aren’t considered safe third countries. Expediting the selection process would surely be in violation of one of the many agreements and treaties in place. So it’s generally “easier” – especially in light of Germany examining the same possibility right now, perhaps confronting the same dilemma – for Austria to limit the number of asylum requests. Total madness.
Claire: What were the economic effects of sealing the borders—was commerce affected, trucking, imports and exports? How did businesses that rely on trade with the rest of Europe respond?
Lilibellt: Really sorry, but I don’t have enough insight to answer that question. Anyway, Austria will likely lift the suspension under the new SPÖ Chancellor Kern — and Greece and Italy still haven’t secured their borders.
Claire: Let’s remind people here that these are maritime borders, and perhaps explain what happened with Operation Mare Nostrum. In October 2014, Italy ended its search and rescue operations after critics in Italy and Europe claimed that the rescue mission was just creating incentives for more migrants to attempt the sea crossing. The Italian government had been spending nine million Euros a month on it. Italy asked the rest of the EU for funds to support the operation; it refused. But cancelling the operation didn’t result in a decreased rate of crossing. Within a month, a thousand people had died in shipwrecks.
So it was replaced with the EU-funded Frontex, which in principle “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management,” but which in the words of this Bureau of Investigative Journalism report,
… is arguably more for show than substance – a microcosm of everything that is hampering a pan-European response to the current crisis. …
Frontex actually has little power and struggles to operate in the straitjacket imposed by the collective failure of member states and Brussels to fully commit and cooperate with it – despite the current crisis. …
… Our investigation has also uncovered official warnings about the way the agency oversees the return of illegal migrants.
And even its intelligence-gathering role is hampered by a lack of member states’ action.
Frontex risk analysis during the past three years correctly predicted a surge of refugee numbers streaming through the central Mediterranean, Greece and Hungary.
The trouble is Europe did not act on its findings.
The consequences of these EU-wide failures has been to create an environment in which thousands of people have drowned at sea and where smugglers have made fortunes from refugees fleeing war.
Greece is an archipelago, and I truly think it never occurred to people before this started happening that so many people would risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean in rubber boats: It was assumed this was a reasonably impenetrable natural barrier. I also suspect that people keep thinking about this without thinking about the context in the MENA region. It used to be possible, for example, to make (extremely dirty) deals with Qaddafi: “You keep anyone from escaping, we’ll pretend we don’t know how you make that happen, and we’ll invest in your oil.” And Syria of course used to be a Baathist dictatorship with a very strong state; now it’s a failed state and a refugee factory with no authority strong enough to control its own borders.
There’s no easy solution to this that doesn’t involve killing people who are trying to escape these places. In a way, the collective non-decision to let them drown is a passive-aggressive way of deciding, “We will protect our borders with force. If you try, you will die.” No one has to shoot them, but not rescuing them amounts to the same thing—
Lilibellt: —The EU didn’t help. No question. But since everybody wanted to get to Germany, Austria, and Sweden anyway, Italy and Greece waved through most of the arriving migrants without processing them.
Claire: Most? Many refugees are still in Greece. A seventh of all in the EU in total.
Lilibellt: That’s true, but the refugees don’t apply for asylum in Greece (in contrast with Italy):
Lilibellt: –Austria wasn’t any better, the state-run railway company transported thousands of migrants to the German border. You can’t overlook the irony here, the man who was in charge of the company back then is now our new, sworn-in chancellor – actually a human trafficker himself. If you did the same thing with your private vehicle, you would end up in jail. Craziness all around, and not many journalists who seem to care.
But let me continue to my second point: Don’t process refugees and migrants on national territory. Create an offshore detention facility protected by the military, e.g. on a Greek island or in North Africa, with clear preferential treatment to refugees.
Claire: Do you know if any Greek island or African country has expressed a willingness to do this? Greece is already de facto a refugee holding pen, and I suspect wouldn’t agree to this being formalized.
Lilibeltt: If I remember correctly, Greece has and will again very soon receive bailout payments. Am I being too simplistic, or do I see some leverage here? (And there are islands without inhabitants.) I concede that Greece is having a hard time right now, but it is partly self-inflicted, and they can’t accept refugees refusing to be transported to other places. Hard decisions will have to be made and the pictures won’t be pretty.
Claire: It’s not pretty, no, especially because everyone’s response is, “Keep them somewhere else.” And since politicians are responsible to their national electorates, rather than a larger “Europe” (no matter how hard the EU pretends it has authority), everyone tends to blame their immediate neighbors for the problem rather than looking at the impossible problem — the conflicts that are prompting people to flee.
Austria’s not a superpower, it doesn’t have an “Eritrean policy.” Turks are asking, “Why the hell are we responsible for all of this? We’re not even part of the EU, we’ve taken more refugees and spent more money than any other EU country, and now you don’t even want to let our citizens travel to Europe? How insulting can you possibly be!” — it’s all understandable, at the national level.
Lilibeltt: Third point: Urgently negotiate readmission agreements with Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan, Somalia, Chechnya. Doing this is mentioned specifically in European treaties, but the European Commission can’t be bothered; they’re too busy calculating the penalty payments for member states that don’t accept their refugee-quotas. If the EU is unwilling to do it, Austria should conclude bilateral treaties.
Claire: What’s wrong with the readmission agreements as they’re now written, and what would the goal of these negotiations be? Is there evidence that the EC can’t be bothered, or might it be that they’re trying, but it’s taking a long time and they’re not getting much cooperation from the governments in question? I’d think cooperation would be good with Morocco and Tunisia. Neither country is apt to be producing many legitimate refugees, so in principle there should be very few, or no, unskilled job-seekers coming from there to Europe. I don’t know whether the Afghan state has enough control to negotiate treaties expeditiously. Wouldn’t any agreement with Chechnya have to be negotiated with Russia? I don’t know how that would work–
Lilibeltt: –I was a bit sarcastic there. Yes, they are negotiating right now, but I sense a lack of urgency. What I should have written: Urgently finalize negotiations with those countries. I stand by the last sentence: If the EU doesn’t succeed in doing so in the near future, we should begin bilateral negotiations. Afghanistan and some others will be difficult, therefore there have to be detention facilities, not only for migrants of certain nationalities, but also for migrants who have conveniently lost their papers.
Last point: There should be massive financial and military support for refugee camps in the region.
Claire: Absolutely agree with you about that. Do you think it’s necessary for Austria to become more involved in settling the conflicts that are producing so many of these refugees? I don’t think the influx from places such as Syria and Libya is apt to stop until the civil wars stop. The push factor is just too high.
Lilibeltt: Yes, correct. As much as I wish that America would be more involved, I also agree with people on Ricochet who think it’s time for Europe to take on some responsibility. You can’t always leave the dirty work to Americans and then condemn them for waging war or having self-interested motives. “Oil, you know!” “Austria is politically neutral like Switzerland, so conveniently, we are off the hook.” Those are the opinions of most of my fellow Austrians.
Claire: But you do support both the EU and the letter and spirit of the Geneva Convention, it sounds. Is this a common view among people who voted FPÖ? You sure wouldn’t know it from the press, if so.
Lilibeltt: I say: EU: Jein (Yes and No) – another time. The EU directives on asylum go beyond the Geneva Convention. (I support the Geneva Convention within its “natural” limits: For example, a country can’t grant asylum to as many people as it has inhabitants; or at least, I wouldn’t support that, it must be feasible enough that a democratic majority will be comfortable with it. But this is common sense, isn’t it?) The FPÖ says, EU: Yes (with the emphasis on Union of Nations, not a United States of Europe – paraphrased from their party program).
Claire: The vagueness of Dublin III is a recipe for conflict. Every country blames the other, no one to has sufficient legitimacy to take responsibility, and no one, therefore, takes responsibility — leading each member state to an even greater lack of “solidarity, trust, and smooth functioning” with the other.
And for everyone who will automatically say, “The problem is the EU, get rid of it,” I have to ask: Then what? Re-hire the same bureaucrats to negotiate a new treaty that at best will say exactly what EU No. 439/2010 does? Someone will have to negotiate these treaties if there’s to be any cooperation — and they will require an EU-like structure to implement.
Lilibeltt: The downfall of the EU was the Greek bailout — also under Merkel — in violation of the Maastricht Treaty. A much more complex problem than it looked on the surface, much like the refugee crises, but that’s the problem with this kind of lawlessness, it comes back to bite you. Losing trust is so much easier than gaining trust. I don’t see the EU recovering from this, and that’s the most scary part: What will a Europe without the EU look like?
Claire: My instinct, based on the reality of power politics, is that the US will ultimately either lead these negotiations and dictate a solution to this problem (to a reasonable approximation of sanity, at least) or cede Europe to Russia. But we’ll pick up that point from here next time–
Lilibeltt: –what I’m sensing and guessing is that the people (not the politicians) of middle Europe, at least, distrust America more than Russia. The reasons for that are simple: The hard left (anti-capitalism) and the hard right (latent and open anti-Semitism, nationalism) are indistinguishable in their anti-Americanism. The political center to a large extent thinks America is the reason for all of this turmoil in the first place, either because of the Iraq War (among those who lean left), or because of Obama’s naivete (among those who lean right).
Claire: On top of that, if the European state that would naturally dominate decision-making, by virtue of wealth and power, tries to dominate decisions like these, the rest of Europe goes nuts, because Germany’s history of trying to do that has left … bad memories, shall we say. Neither France nor Germany can impose their will on the situation because the whole point of the EU is to contain that rivalry. And Britain is useless; they can’t even decide if they want to be part of Europe. So effectively, the smaller states are the victims of the chains Germany and France have placed on themselves.
This is where our conversation ends, for now. To be continued.
Thank you so much for the contributions that have allowed me to focus my attention on stories like this. I’d of course be hugely grateful for support toward defraying the costs of travelling to the countries affected by this (starting with Austria), seeing what’s happening with my own eyes, and then writing about what I see:

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