Why the Austrian-Danish principle of “enforcement first, legal admissions later” is not a feasible fix for Europe's dysfunction asylum and refugee system.
By Martin Ruhs and Mikkel Barslund
On 4 October, the Austrian Minister of the Interior and the Danish Minister for Integration presented a new "vision paper" for reforming European countries’ policies for asylum and protection. The core idea is to shift the policy focus away from assisting migrants who have the resources and are physically strong enough to migrate and apply for asylum in Europe, to providing more effective protection to “the most vulnerable migrants” in countries of first reception near conflict areas. This is to be done primarily through more economic assistance for regions of origin and stricter enforcement of the external EU border, partly through the establishment of "disembarkation platforms" in Africa where migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea would be taken and from where it would not be possible to apply for protection in Europe. After (and, importantly, only after) “irregular migration is reduced and public trust [is] restored”, there should be “enhanced EU-wide resettlement efforts targeting the most vulnerable refugees”, directly from conflict regions to the EU.
We certainly need to discuss new ideas to fix Europe’s current dysfunctional asylum and protection system. While it is hard to disagree with some of the plan’s broad goals – who would not want to help the most vulnerable refugees? – the Austrian-Danish proposal is problematic for a range of reasons, including the specific way it limits opportunities for individuals to apply for asylum in Europe and because of questions about its overall feasibility.
A fundamental strategic aim of the proposal is to reduce the number of migrants arriving and applying for asylum in European countries. While it does not explicitly call for the end of granting protection to people applying for asylum in Europe, the Austrian-Danish vision paper implies that this might be the eventual logical consequence, or at least the eventual effective outcome, for most of the people in the world who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries. The proposal argues that asylum in Europe should only be granted if the asylum seeker is from a neighbouring country, or if there is no other “safe haven” that is closer to the asylum seeker’s country of origin. Minimising opportunities for applying for asylum in Europe is an especially problematic policy when the only alternative pathway to protection in Europe – resettlement of recognised refugees directly from conflict regions – is also curtailed at the same time.
Enforcement but no protection
This brings us to the main flaw of the Austrian-Danish vision paper for a better European asylum and protection system, namely, its insistence on “enforcement first, legal admissions later”, i.e. the idea that we need to first reduce irregular migration, and then enhance resettlement. There are at least three problems with this approach.
First, there is an obvious political danger that the policy will deliver step 1 (enforcement) but not step 2 (more legal admissions).
How are enforcement thresholds defined?
Second, there will always be some irregular migration to the EU. Hence, there is the question of how we assess that the border is secure and irregular migration has been reduced sufficiently. In similar debates in the US, this question lead to highly fractious and unresolved arguments about potential thresholds for indicators of enforcement outcomes that could be used to ‘trigger’ phase 2. Agreeing on when “public trust is restored” will be equally difficult.
Cooperation unlikely without paths to legal migration
Third, as the Austrian-Danish plan explicitly acknowledges, more effective efforts to regulate migration will require greater co-operation with countries of origin and transit. Incentivizing (or “buying”) this support by providing more economic assistance is, on its own, unlikely to be enough. International migration is a domestic policy challenge in all countries, not just in Europe. To engage in effective and sustainable partnerships with African countries, Europe will have to make a “legal migration offer”, in the form of an increase in resettlement of recognised refugees and, depending on the country, also more legal labour migration opportunities.
An effective new system for asylum and migration requires a comprehensive approach that delivers more border enforcement, more help for countries of origin, and more legal migration pathways at the same time, not sequentially. Austria and Denmark (and many other European countries) have done exactly the opposite. Both countries have suspended resettlement, despite now receiving the lowest number of asylum seekers in years. This shutting down of legal pathways may be consistent with the sequencing in their new vision but it is a major policy mistake when assessed against the goals of creating a realistic and better system of protection for the most vulnerable.
Now that the EU is in the process of negotiating its future budget – and with Austria in the driving seat as holder of the presidency – it is the perfect time to commit substantial resources for regions of origin and financing for increases, not decreases, in resettlement to Europe.
Martin Ruhs from the European University Institute's Migration Policy Centre and Mikkel Barslund from the Centre for European Policy Studies are writing in a personal capacity. They are part of the international MEDAM project, which provides research to inform the reform of European policies on asylum and migration.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.