German-Polish European BLOG

Externalization at all costs? EU migration and border policy

  1. refugees on a boat

The high influx of asylum seekers in 2015 plunged the European Union into a crisis. The brunt of refugee reception rested on only a few shoulders. This revealed a serious lack of solidarity within the Community. Ever since, the Member States have seemed to agree only on one aspect: Illegal migration should be significantly curtailed and at best not even reach the EU.

Vera Hanewinkel*

The question of how best to regulate, control and limit migration to Europe has become a central bone of contention between the 28 Member States of the European Union since the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015. Around 1.3 million asylum seekers came to the EU that year, most of them fleeing the war in Syria and violent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, global problems such as poverty and a lack of prospects in other countries in the EU’s neighborhood also brought people to seek asylum in the EU.

Limits of the Dublin system

The high migratory pressure revealed the weaknesses of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS): The Dublin system, stipulating in which state a person seeking protection should apply for asylum – usually the state of first entry – collapsed. The states on the EU’s southern external borders, in particular Greece and Italy, were overburdened and thus failed to register all incoming migrants who tended to move on to other EU countries. As many Member States no longer saw the protection of the EU’s external borders guaranteed, they reintroduced inspections at their internal borders, thus undermining a fundamental principle of the Schengen area: the free movement of persons. Within the Community, the high level of refugee migration revealed a lack of solidarity: the bulk of the refugee intake rested on the shoulders of only a few countries, while other Member States were barely affected by migration movements and demonstratively unwilling to accept more refugees.
In 2015 and 2016, Germany registered by far the largest number of asylum applications within the EU.  Since the crisis, the German government has been pushing for a permanent mechanism to distribute asylum seekers more evenly across the 28 Member States. However, the majority of EU countries reject binding distribution quotas. The most recent EU summit in Salzburg in September 2018 brought no rapprochement with regard to this issue despite the pressure that the EU has been under. The Italian government is threatening to close the country’s ports not only for private search and rescue organizations, but also for the ships of the EU’s “Sophia” mission, should the other EU states not be willing to share the burden of taking in migrants and refugees rescued at sea.

Frontex, EASO and concentric circles

The harmonization of asylum procedures and standards in the reception, care and accommodation of asylum seekers in the 28 EU Member States, which Germany advocates, is making a slow progress. Although the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has been strengthened, the EU is still a long way from joint asylum procedures at the external borders. Many Member States are unwilling to hand over more sovereignty on asylum issues to supranational institutions. This also applies to the border protection agency Frontex. The German government supports its transformation into a genuine European border police and pushes for a further expansion of its mandate. To this day, however, Frontex may not operate autonomously on the territory of individual EU states in order to control the external borders.
Since the Austrian EU Council Presidency in 1998 introduced the concept of “concentric circles”, this idea, although never officially adopted, has shaped the design of European border policy. States in the immediate vicinity of the EU, but also those more distant, should take on a buffering and protective role. They should secure the outskirts to prevent the entry of unauthorized persons into the EU and Schengen area. The EU-Turkey Statement, which was strongly supported by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the most vivid exemplification of these externalization efforts. Together with the border closures along the so-called Balkan route, it has ensured a significant reduction in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the EU.

Under the pressure of the far-right

Currently, the German government, under pressure from the rising popularity of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is campaigning for further expansion of the externalization policy. The focus is currently on important countries of origin and transit on the African continent. In consequence, German and EU development cooperation in Africa has become more and more strongly linked to security and migration. For example, the funds of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa serve to combat the causes of the refugee crisis and migration. At the same time, they are also invested into the voluntary and forced repatriation of irregular migrants on their way to Europe. According to the will of policy makers, North African states (with which some migration-related agreements had already existed before the political upheavals in the wake of the Arab Spring) should (again) be more closely involved in the EU border regime. They are considered key to stemming illegal migration across the Mediterranean. But some of them are difficult partners. For instance, Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is considered controversial. Since he took power, the status of human rights in the country has seriously deteriorated. Libya,  from which most of the migrant and refugee boats depart, is a war-torn country. Refugees and migrants being detected in Libya are often sent to camps where inhuman conditions prevail. In 2017, images of slave markets where people were sold like animals made the headlines around the world. Germany and the EU see themselves as protectors of human rights and regularly emphasize that they must also be reflected in refugee policy. In practice, however, they sometimes seem to subordinate basic and human rights to the objective of containing migratory flows towards the EU. This bears the danger of losing (even more) credibility.

diagram: top refugee-hosting countries

*Vera Hanewinkel is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) of the University of Osnabrück.
Illustration from