Since its establishment, the EU has experienced large influxes of refugees, defined by the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. However, in deciding how to respond to high levels of asylum seeker applications, the EU has never been fully united.
The European Union’s common asylum policy (or asylum acquis) was not easily created. Struggling to find common ground, rifts between Member States, particularly between richer and poorer, and Mediterranean (or ‘frontline’) and Northern Member States, appeared. However, the eventual transposition of Member States’ national asylum policies into supranational laws, and EU treaties and conventions, started to give form to a common policy by the 1990s. Minimum standards for the protection, assessment, and processing of refugees and asylum seekers became common practice of Member States.
This is not to say that the EU was a perfect role-model.
The controversial ‘state-of-first-entry’ policy contributed to an image of the EU as a fortress, which would savagely protect its Mediterranean border. However, the common asylum acquis did signal the beginnings of a normative Europe that accepted a greater number of refugees than other similarly developed nations such as the United States and Australia, and ensured that they (and applicants) would be protected whilst they remained within the borders of the EU.
Perhaps encouraging this path was Europe’s Cold War legacy, which saw great influxes of political refugees from Eastern Europe into the, then, European Community. That is certainly one of the most common explanations of Germany’s tradition of accepting large numbers of asylum seekers. Or it could simply be part-and-parcel of the new, cosmopolitan and integrated Europe. Either way, Europe’s record regarding refugees was one of the best in the world. Until now.
Across the EU we are witnessing waves of state-endorsed rejection of asylum seekers. In October 2015, Hungary violently closed its borders, preventing refugees from crossing into Central and Western Europe (though the government has recently begun to back-peddle on this when it realised the country desperately needed an injection into its labour force). The xenophobic framing of the migrant crisis, by both the mass media and Eurosceptic politicians and parties, is also said to have contributed to the Brexit campaign. But more than the loss of normative values, the EU’s asylum law has effectively been dismantled.
In March this year we saw Europe’s political elites scramble for a way to stem the flow of refugees into Europe, especially those who came by means of dangerous routes over the Mediterranean. This was perhaps the final nail in normative Europe’s coffin- the EU-Turkey Agreement. This agreement has effectively destroyed the ‘state-of-first-entry’ policy, a cornerstone of EU’s asylum law. It has helped turn Greece, a state unable to meet the minimum standards for the protection of refugees, into a limbo state. As a consequence, many refugees that should be granted asylum are stuck in Greece, as many EU Member States fail to meet their redistribution quotas set by the Agreement. It has also deemed Turkey a “safe third country” for the millions of refugees living there and those who will be returned there from the EU. This is the very state which has shot dead refugees trying to cross its south-eastern border. Consequently, this agreement has been so utterly condemned by humanitarian organisations that Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) rejected financial aid from the EU in 2016 in a sign of protest.
But what does this mean for the world, and even for Australia?
The breakdown of Europe’s supranational laws won’t directly affect other states, but the breakdown of the visionary normative Europe will. Today, looking around the world, you may struggle to find examples of ‘good’ asylum law, though it is too easy to find examples of inhumane treatments of refugees. Only in August Australia was shocked by allegations of assault against children, and sexual abuse and assault against asylum seekers on Nauru. With the fall of this great, normative Union, we are left to question- who will now act as a role-model for asylum law in the world?
Stephanie Keane is an Honours student at UWA studying Political Science and International Relations, who is trying to procrastinate from writing her thesis on the refugee crisis by writing blog posts on the refugee crisis.