Experts discuss causes and consequences of refugee crisis

October 1, 2015

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Rutgers University Professor of Political Science R. Daniel Kelemen and Princeton University’s Rafaela Dancygier and Kim Lane Scheppele discussed the causes and consequences of Europe’s refugee crisis at a roundtable held at Princeton on Tuesday, September 29th.

The end of the honeymoon?

Rafaela Dancygier, who studies ethnic diversity in advanced democracies, said she was puzzled by the fact that a vast majority of Germans supported the government’s decision to admit almost a million refugees so far this year and an additional 500,000 over the next four years.

Dancygier noted that this is the largest number of refugees to be taken in by Germany since the end of the Second World War, the major difference being that this time they are not ethnic German victims of ethnic cleansing, but people from the Middle-East and central Asia having no connection to Germany, culturally, linguistically or otherwise.

She said that traditionally Germans have not been all that welcoming of refugees, but according to a public opinion poll taken the previous month a vast majority of Germans supported the country taking in refugees, especially those fleeing persecution or war, in the belief that it will contribute to an “easing of the labor shortage”.  However, Dancygier is concerned the “honeymoon” of positive public opinion will end as the large inflow puts upward pressure on rents and inundates towns and cities in eastern Germany where support for right-wing, anti-immigrant parties is high.

“Refugees are a gift” for a country like Germany whose population has been shrinking and which suffers labor shortages, according to Dancygier, who notes that “Germany has been trying to get more migrants, especially highly skilled, without much success”.   However, while Syrians tend to be better educated than refugees from Afganistan or Eritrea, “almost none of them know German”.   For this reason, she believes integrating them into the German economy will be challenging, “even at the high-skilled end”.

Where to settle the migrants?

Another problem Germany faces is where to put the refugees.  “Putting them in areas where housing is available is going to create problems,” she said. “Putting them where they are welcome will result in rents going up” and the “end of the honeymoon phase”.

“Many Germans believe the refugees should be housed in the east where there is a surplus of housing. The problem is that there are few jobs available in the east”.  Moreover, she noted that support for Germany’s far-right, anti-immigrant party is very high in the east.

The Dublin system is broken

Kim Lane Scheppele, who is the director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University in addition to being a professor of Sociology and International Affairs, focused on the legal aspect of Europe’s refugee crisis.

“The EU has a legal framework for virtually everything that it is going to do,” noted Scheppele, adding that “asylum law, international protection law, and law for processing applications is all EU law rather than Member State law”.  She pointed out that even though asylum law is one of those areas where EU law has taken precedence over Member State law, “there are huge differences in how Member States handle crises”.

“EU law itself is broken, most specifically around the question of who is responsible for processing asylum claims,” Scheppele said.

She explained that the Dublin system requires asylum seekers to apply for asylum in the first EU state they enter, to prevent the making of multiple applications, noting that “It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now”.

The lack of a unified system for evaluating asylum applications meant the likelihood of an application for asylum or international protection being approved depends where one applied.  She noted that Germany traditionally approves over 60 percent of asylum applications.  By contrast, “front-line” countries such as Hungary (9 percent) or Greece (4 percent) rejected far more applications than they approved.

Poor countries can’t afford to care for refugees

EU front-line Member States also happen to be among its poorest members, noted Scheppele. Under Dublin, frontline states had an obligation to register migrants and process asylum claims, as well as provide shelter, food, housing, medical care, and opportunity for employment while applications were pending.

“This is no big deal in the case of 50 people,” said Scheppele.  But it was a very big deal if all of a sudden tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees showed up on your doorstep.

According to the professor of sociology and comparative law, Greece is no longer considered a front-line EU state because the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice ruled it is no longer capable of discharging its responsibilities to asylum seekers after having instituted austerity programs.

The result, said Scheppele, was that tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war and overcrowded refugee camps “discovered Hungary”.

Refugee ping-pong

Being a government “run by lawyers” Hungary “will always do something in law before they do it in practice,” she said.  “Whether the laws are a good idea or not is a different question.

“Seeing that it was going to be a front-line state, Hungary decided that it was going to build a fence along its 100-mile border with Serbia.” The only conceivable purpose of the fence was “to force refugees to enter the EU via Romania or Croatia, both EU Member States”.

“EU law requires front-line countries to register and fingerprint asylum seekers.  It doesn’t require Member States to treat them badly. Considering that the Dublin system was broken to begin with, Hungary could just have easily let the migrants pass through.

“What the Hungarians were extremely worried about was that the Dublin system would be one day invoked and Hungary would be stuck with all these people.  All refugees entering the EU via Hungary could, under EU law, be returned to Hungary. “

Scheppele said Hungary responded by modifying regulations governing granting asylum claims.  “According to this law at the first proceeding all judges are allowed to ask is ‘how did you get to Hungary?’.  If the answer is via a state deemed safe by Hungary, then the asylum judge is limited to saying we’re sending you back because under our law you have to be processed”.

To the extent Hungary’s modified asylum law is not compatible with EU law or that of neighboring countries, she warned it could result in “refugee ping-pong” with Germany or Austria deporting refugees whose asylum requests have been rejected back to Hungary which, in turn, deports them back to Germany or Austria.

A need for unified standards

She said standards used to process applications are also subject to EU law, and every Member State is required to determine whether the individual has a well-founded fear of persecution in the case of asylum claims, or whether the person has reason to fear violence as in the case for applications for international protection.

Observing that if “Hungary is going to violate EU law or doing something unusual, it will never be the first”, she noted that just the previous week the European Commission took the unprecedented step of filing infringement actions against 19 Member States for failing to transpose, that is, codify into domestic legislation EU directives on asylum.

Noting that “Hungary is run by extremely clever lawyers” Scheppele said the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “correctly judged that Dublin was insane” and that “we will be in very good company if we develop our own idiosyncratic standards for granting asylum and protection until the EC makes everybody transpose the directives”.

“They can’t go after Hungary for having bizarre asylum law, they have to go after everyone,” she said, adding that “This is not going to be a speedy process” and “it is going to be a very long time before the Europeans pass the laws and begin implementing laws”.  The situation was further complicated by the fact that in Hungary’s case “several different standards are being deliberately confused”.

The Princeton professor said economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are distinct determinations.  “Germany has decided that people whose primary residences are in ‘safe countries’ will be presumptively turned down for asylum or international protection”, including refugees presently living in the former constituent states of Yugoslavia.

A sleight of hand

In Hungary’s case, the criteria was not residency but whether the refugee had passed through a safe country on his or her way to Hungary. “It will take years to sort this out,” warned Scheppele.  “Until then Hungary will claim to be copying Germany, which they aren’t.”

However, Scheppele noted that certain EU net donor states wish to condition fiscal transfers to net recipient states on the latter meeting their legal obligations.

“Everybody forgets that the EU is already a big transfer union.  Streams of funds cohesion, agriculture, regional programs redistribute money.  The EU is finally starting to wake up to the idea that this is leverage over the poorer states”. And there is “starting to be talk of EU sanctions, which should help bring some EU Member States into line”.

Causes and consequenes

Rutgers University professor of political science R. Daniel Kelemen attributed the “incredible uptick this year” in migration to deteriorating conditions in the existing refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere.

“Just in the past few weeks there may have been a rush to get to Europe because of the twin fact of Merkel’s announcement” that Germany would accept Syrian refugees, and the pending completion of the fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border, as well as an intensification of ISIS’s campaign, said the EU expert.

Crisis, failure, move forward

He said Europe’s refugee crisis was the product of “EU policy being one of a half-built union” and that “we’re seeing the peaking of the crisis that has been mounting for eight years or so”.

“At the core of the EU crisis is the fact that they launched a common currency without other policies, such as coordination of fiscal policies and central banks that you would ordinarily need to support monetary union,” said Kelemen, who likens the EU to a “half-built ship going out to sea—as soon as as there is a stormy sea, it gets into trouble”.

He said the EU’s response “has been to add necessary elements “on the fly” and this applied to EU policy on refugees as well as the eurozone crisis and the Greek debt crisis.

“A fundamental unsustainable aspect of the EU is that it has tried to maintain the Schengen system of free internal movement and open internal borders.  But they’ve left control of external borders to national governments, and left them in charge of immigration and asylum policy,” said Kelemen. “Free movement internally is incompatible with national control over borders, asylum, and immigration when there is a crisis.”

Failing forward or backward?

Would the EU fail forward, in other words would it get more control over policing? Would they strengthen common controlled borders?  Would they harmonize common control of immigrant procedures and asylum policy?  Would they set up a system of allocating refugees across the EU?

Calling the Greek and eurozone crisis “interminable” Kelemen said the dual crises had “consumed all of the EU’s political capital” and “taken the wind out of the EU’s sails, be it on backsliding on democracy in Hungary, or the refugee crisis”.

On the subject of the “fundamental incompatibility of open internal borders, Schengen and national control of internal borders, immigration and asylum”, Kelemen said one of two things is going to happen:

“Either it’s going to fail back, and Schengen will die, which is what has happened temporarily with the suspension of Schengen” or it will “fail forward”.

He said the refugee crisis will result in the hardening of the EU’s external borders, but that the question was whether they should harden the borders of the 28 Member States or just Schengen, which is a subset of the EU but which includes Norway and Switzerland.

The Rutgers professor of political science said the European Commission tolerated Hungary building a fence along the border of Serbia, but it strongly objected to Hungary laying out razor wire along the border with Slovenia.  He anticipates the EU playing a larger role in the policing of external borders, as well as playing a larger rule in the resettlement of refugees.

“They could put a lot of stimulus money into Greece, where you could build cities for Syrians,” observed Kelemen. “There could be a permanent system for redistributing refugees, like in the US.”

Political consequences 

Kelemen said the EU had got itself on the “wrong side of two big issues” in terms of populist politics by demanding fiscal discipline on the part of Member States at a time of growing unemployment and poverty, while at the same time requiring them to provide refugees with the kinds of public services and benefits they cannot afford to give their own citizens.

Agreeing with Scheppele that “Dublin is dead” and “has to be replaced”, Kelemen anticipates “greater harmonization” and “more EU control over immigration, asylum and borders”.  However, this would come at a cost.

“They are going to throw a bone to the Right by getting more aggressive on policing the external borders, but will push for more guarantees for respecting basic criteria for humane treatment and processing of claims,” speculated the expert on comparative public policy.

Scheppele agreed that EU pressure to reduce social safety nets was incompatible with moral pressure to give away things to refugees.

“Hungary had to meet draconian conditions imposed on it by the IMF in 2009 just before the refugee crisis”, as a result of which it eliminated the entire social safety net.  “It is extremely difficult to give free housing and medical care to refugees,” said Scheppele.  “It can’t do it politically.  No country could.”

On the subject of the attempts by Orbán to exploit Europe’s refugee crisis for his own political and ideological ends, Scheppele noted that even as he was tearing Europe apart with one hand by unifying right-wing parties, he was promoting EU solidarity with the other through Hungary’s proposal that each Member State contribute part of their GDP towards building refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon.

“The EU never knows what to do with Viktor Orbán. That is precisely how he will survive,” said Scheppele.

The Brexit threat

Scheppele agreed with Kelemen that it would be good if the EU could give money to the front-line states, calling it a “virtuous circle“ that would help solve the Greek crisis by infusing money into the beleaguered country.  However, she observed that the prospect of the United Kingdom exiting the EU would prevent this from happening.

“Britain wants a smaller, slimmer EU. So long as the UK leaving the EU remains on the agenda, the EU is paralyzed from doing anything that would increase its competencies and solidarity. It’s just bad luck that a solution to these crises is blocked by Brexit [an abbreviation of “British exit”].”

Kelemen noted that the euro remains very popular, even in Greece, but he is concerned about so-called “differential integration” or “variable geometry” whereby certain Member States are allowed to opt out of certain conventions. If the UK stays it may “harden the divisions between those in the core and peripheral members”.

“Do people like Schengen enough and free movement that they’ll do whatever it takes even if it involves increased EU control over border protection?”