“Nobody in Europe will be abandoned”, said Angela Merkel, “nobody in Europe will be excluded. Europe only succeeds if we work together.”
Even though Angela Merkel has been very vocal about her support for refugees and relocation during her leadership, European policies did not fall in line with her rhetoric. Critics of the failure to handle the so-called “migration crisis” have dawned on her and the rest of the European Union, who have been accused of paralysis in the face of crisis. In the meantime, while most European leaders negotiated with each other and with their constituencies about the quantity of asylum seekers they wanted to admit in their country, Spain was undergoing a political crisis that resulted in a vote of no confidence ousting the former Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. One of the new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s first political moves was to allow the Aquarius to dock, a ship with 629 immigrants that had previously been rejected by Italy and Malta. Instead of focusing on refugee relocations, a bill presented by the Parliament advocated for the removal of barbed wire at the borders separating the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco and a promise to guarantee asylum rights and the restoration of migrants’ full health coverage. This represents a shift in rhetoric: human security and development should be the forefront of immigration policies.
The European Union’s rhetoric of human rights defenders and their commitment to welcoming asylum seekers in the region has been translated into narrow-minded policies. The regional body has been issuing annual resettlement schemes since 2015, and it has focused on homogenizing the treatment of refugees to try to ensure that minimum rights are widely recognized within European countries. Regular immigration and border management are also priorities of the European Union in their migration policy. According to the ‘Global Approach to Migration and Mobility’, the four pillars of European migration are regular immigration and mobility, irregular immigration and trafficking in human beings, international protection and asylum policy, and maximising the impact of migration and mobility on development.
However, European attempts at a establishing concerted effort by Member States to handle immigration responsibly have thus far been unsuccessful. According to the Dublin Regulation- Regulation (604/2013), a legal discipline known for establishing the treatment of third country nationals, each Member State is responsible for the examination of asylum applications. In practical terms, this means that states can choose to send migrants back to the state they first turned in their applications. This process is already hard enough on its own, but the increase in unpredictability and the high amounts of bureaucratic procedures they have to go through make resettlement and the asylum application the most important issue states and migrants are concerned about. If we analyze reports by the Center of Migration Studies, they conclude that migration in Europe entails a “proactive combination of deterrence, intelligence, surveillance, anti-smuggling activities, border enforcement, and policing and readmission collaboration with Turkey, Libya, and Libya’s African neighbors.” France, Germany and Italy have recently passed new immigration bills tightening asylum petition requirements. Denmark has isolated a small number of failed asylum seekers on a deserted island, and Hungary passed a law in June criminalizing the help to asylum seekers.
As we can appreciate from the graph, the relocation policies from Greece and Italy in different states in Europe has been unsuccessful as well. No state has fulfilled all the relocation requirements and most of them haven’t even reached a third. Now, asylum applications have fallen.
While migration in Europe has decreased the most since 2015, Spain has seen migration doubled for the past two years. Most of the migrants come from Sub-Saharan Africa, in contrast with Europe’s general trend of receiving asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Because of this difference in country of origin, Spain has developed cooperation ties with Morocco that intend to promote development and the regularization of migration. In Moroccan Minister of Foreign Affairs words, “migration is not a security issue, it is a question of human security.” Although Morocco’s inclinations towards cooperation with Spain on migration stems mostly from its own self-interest of protection against smuggling networks, the relationship of collaboration it has created goes beyond immediate resettlement issues.
This is not to say that Spain has a clean immigration-handling record. In fact, it did not fulfil its quota of relocations following the so-called 2015 migration crisis. It conducts procedures of racial profiling in the border of Melilla, legal assistance is usually unavailable, and the waiting time for asylum applications is of 6 months in average. It is important to recognize that the speed of the bureaucratic process is key for migrant families to start their new lives. However, the sole focus on relocations and legal work does not account for real issues that asylum-seekers face when trying to reconstruct their lives.
First of all, the most important element for a person’s feeling of security is healthcare. Asylum-seekers have endured many hardships during their migration. Access to healthcare – whether it is for physical or mental care – is one of the most basic needs that require coverage upon arrival, during the resettlement process and in the aftermath. It is necessary to undergo a medical check when you arrive in your country of destination, a widespread procedure carried out by destination states to ensure that diseases are contained. However, it is even more important that healthcare is continuous and will not be subject to removal by any authority. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez motioned to recover universal health coverage for migrants last year, moving the rhetoric about immigration about the question of relocation and focusing on the more humane side of the topic: what do people actually need on their day to day life?
The Refugees Welcome banner hanging at the front of Madrid’s city hall has been widely recognized as the city’s commitment to handle immigration better. Although, as mentioned, number of relocations and asylum application acceptances is not the desired one, the Spanish public opinion is the most positive out of all European countries regarding migration: 86 percent of Spanish adults are in favor of taking in people fleeing violence and war. This rhetoric has eased the work of NGOs who do humanitarian work regarding immigration. Thus, the Spanish City Hall is openly supporting Refugees Welcome, the organization whose name denotes the banner. It registers information of families who are willing to share their homes with refugees as well as the information of refugees who are willing to live in a shared space with locals. Then, they match locals with refugees and if they agree to after a meeting, they start to share a home for 5 months or longer, until the asylum-seeker has managed to secure housing on their own. By showing their support for such organizations, Madrid’s city hall has raised concerns, again, about daily lives of refugees. Not how many there are in Madrid.
The European migrant crisis has been a very prominent and divisive issue in the EU during the past five years and there have been many proposals on how to deal with it. Most of them have either not worked or been highly criticized, and the issue remains salient. However, the framing of this topic influences state action, which must change: the migrant issue is not a security concern, but human security. Worrying about the daily lives of those who have to leave their country should be at the forefront of the immigration discussion. State interests in the European Union have framed discourse around petitions and numbers. While those concerns are very important and securing a path for regular migration must remain a central issue, this is not the only layer to analyze and to develop. A focus on development and reorganization of people’s lives after they migrante can be found in Spain, where provisions such as the universal health coverage or engagement with local organizations that promote healthier and easier lives for refugees should be an example for the rest of European countries. These efforts should be further addressed both in European-wide and state-specific policies so that the standards of living of asylum-seekers can drastically improve.