A Promising Future for All

Jeremy Harding

The informal EU summit in Bratislava last week was the object of semi-enthusiastic press speculation as the dignitaries prepared to gather, and bored silence once it was over. Billed as the first summit without the UK, all it could say about meeting as a group of 27, rather than 28, was that 'the EU remains indispensable to the rest of us.’ But it set down a new marker in the European refugee crisis, which Theresa May hammered into place yesterday during her first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York. In Europe and the UK the very notion of asylum has finally been buried under security issues.

The Bratislava roadmap is a set of vague goals for the short to medium term, including 'priority here and now to show unity' and to secure 'a promising future for all'. On the refugee question, it calls cheerfully for a broader consensus on migration policy, despite the Visegrad Group’s allergy to 'Muslim' immigration. But other roadmap targets on migration and external borders are not so anodyne: 'Never to allow return to uncontrolled flows of last year and further bring down numbers of irregular migrants’; ‘Ensure full control of our external borders and get back to Schengen.' The roadmap also calls for full implementation of the Brussels-Ankara deal agreed in March, and aims to make the 'rapid reaction' component of the European Border and Coast Guard fully operational by the end of the year.

The deal with Ankara obliges Turkey to repatriate its own and 'third-country' nationals (mostly Syrians) from Europe (mostly Greece) if they're not deemed eligible for asylum in a European member state. In return, Turkey gets €6 billion over three years in European aid, with the likelihood of more to come. For every migrant sent back, Europe will take one asylum seeker currently in Turkey with a likely claim. As of July, about 800 had been transferred from Turkey; the latest total for 'readmissions' from Greece to Turkey is around 500. Conditions in Turkey for asylum seekers are often scandalous – it has the world's largest refugee population – and there is evidence that the Interior Ministry is pre-selecting the people it considers eligible before the lists are presented to UNHCR, or preventing them from leaving when a potential host country has agreed to receive them. No one wants to go back to Turkey but the longer asylum seekers are blocked in Greece the less they resemble the people they were when they fled. The fire on Lesbos – a post by Yiannis Baboulias is on its way – signals the dangers of the camps and tells us, if we want to listen, that indefinite kettling is creating the kind of asylum seekers we imagined in our worst nightmares.

What of 'rapid reaction'? The EBCG is a beefed-up, revamped Frontex, the EU's external border agency, operational since 2004. 'Rapid reaction' refers to a 'pool' of border guards from member states, at least 1500, which is being put together to respond to an emergency of the kind that was ongoing, and typical, last year. The new Coast Guard, which starts operating next month, will also have the authority, unlike Frontex, to commandeer resources from member states: ships, reconnaissance aircraft and one day – who knows? – armed infantry at harbours on the Mediterranean. It can also intervene on a member state's border without being asked by that state to do so. Finally, it has a mandate to organise 'returns' – sending undocumented migrants away – off its own bat, without acting together with a member state.

There is absolutely nothing in all this to support asylum seekers. The Bratislava roadmap is silent about objective claims to rights by third-country nationals: no condescending caveats, no judicious hand-wringing for the victims of war and pillage. Indeed the word 'rights' never even appears in the text. This is the new discourse of the 27, cleansed of bogus universalising by the Brexit vote and the unashamed nativism of the Visegrad Group. Refugees now come under a single rubric: threats to security. And we must assume that the grand plans of 2015 have been scrapped.

A year ago the EU proposed a quota system that would redistribute 160,000 asylum seekers, stuck in the Balkans and the southern littoral, across all member states. By and large, the members agreed. The Visegrads howled and Britain opted out of the deal, but May's predecessor made a unilateral pledge last September to take 20,000 refugees over five years.

A sobering picture of how members and not-quite-members of the EU are doing, a year after these promises, can be found in the International Organisation for Migration's state-of-play graphics (click on the ‘relocated’ tab after following the link). Italy and Greece aren’t on the list because they’re the source countries; the UK’s missing because it opted out. Germany's relocation figures are low because it has already played host to impressive numbers, as it did during the Balkan wars of the 1990s while it struggled with the costs of reunification: it is not in the business of relocation. France has the lead position, with nearly 1700 relocations; the figure of non-relocated, self-positioning migrants in Calais is far higher. And so to the total. Twelve months down the road from September 2015, Europe has relocated fewer than 5000 people from the main points of entry, only 3 per cent of the numbers it promised. Opt-out Britain has resettled nearly 3000 refugees from Syria, but that’s since 2011, when the conflict began. At the UN yesterday, May said that Britain was 'on track to achieve' its pledge of taking 20,000 refugees from Syria by 2020; it seems unlikely.

At the end of August the Obama administration, which was lagging behind for most of the year, met an initial resettlement pledge for 10,000 Syrian refugees. It's not a lot, but while Boise, Idaho now hosts more than New York and LA combined, and Worcester, Massachusetts more than Boston, Britain and the EU are intent on closing the gates.