The lack of a comprehensive EU approach on migration is felt locally

Next to Greece and Italy, the countries with by far the biggest influx of people in recent years, it seems that Spain is coming back as an alternative country of entry on the Mediterranean routes. – Photo: Sofyan El Bouchtili

EU Migration policy: containment politics instead of structural leadership

At the fourth Summit for Southern European leaders, held in January of this year, Southern European leaders asked Northern Europe for more solidarity and especially for a structural and unified approach towards migration. Next to financial means, there is also a need to share the burdens, something that has long-plagued EU politics on migration. With twenty years of experience in this field of work, Albert has heard many promises, but never were those promises fulfilled. He says, “Migration was never really on the [European] agenda, it was a phenomenon that happened, and no one really was responsible for”.

With three times as many people coming to Spain in 2017 in comparison to 2016 according to the IOM, Spain is seeing more people dying on its shores and being accommodated in its detention centres. This pressure is especially felt by local NGO’s that act as a first line of protection for these people. When these NGOs wouldn’t be there the immigrants would be in an even more precarious position.

Albert Bitoden Yaka is coordinator of the NGO CEPAIM in Algeciras, Spain. CEPAIM works on migration both in practice and policy and does so with regional and national government and EU institutions and private companies. He has been working for 20 years to help irregular migrants and the most vulnerable in Spanish society to build up their lives. With reports from NGOs Frontex and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) indicating another summer of many people crossing the Mediterranean, Albert worries about the fate of the next batch of refugees and irregular migrants, unaccompanied under aged boys especially.

Albert fled to Europe from Cameroon. It took him eight years to reach Spain. Photo: Sofyan El Bouchtili

Albert fled to Europe from Cameroon. It took him eight years to reach Spain. “Yes, I jumped the fence too” he says almost admittingly. This connection with the fate of people undertaking the same journey toward Europe is what drives him in his work. The fact that he understands the toll it takes on someone to make the journey, evokes much solidarity towards the people he helps.

“The fact that I am here [contributing to society] is why I keep saying that a good and positive policy is viable” he says. “I had opportunities that allowed me to believe in myself and believe that I am not a number but a person.” According to Albert this is what irregular migrants need. He believes that the European Union should capitalize on so many potential inhabitants and workers, but instead he feels they are merchandised in gaining political capital in national politics.


Crisis management

The European Union has had a hard wakeup call in the aftermath of the migration crisis, reaching its height in 2015. Ever since that moment the need for a coherent EU migration policy has become clearer than ever. Humanitarian organizations like Unicef and UNHCR put European noses on the fact that so many dying in the Mediterranean Sea is unacceptable for a Union that wants to be a global leader on humanitarian issues.

The political backlash of refugees and migrants going through unequipped Southern Europe and pouring into Western Europe made migration one of the top political topics in many EU member states in the following elections. They proved that taking a hard stance on migration has seemingly become the new norm to fend off the rise of populism and support for anti-migration sentiments. And this hurts the process of negotiating EU cooperation on migration.

Most refugees and migrants coming to Spain want to remain in Europe. Photo: Sofyan El Bouchtili

“If you would ask me if I would ever go back, then I would say no because on my way I have lost too much” he explains. That many who come to Europe wish to remain there is, according to Albert, that they don’t have anything to return to: either no family and friends or no opportunities to build up their lives due to hunger, climate change or conflict in their countries of origin.


“Europe’s migrants are here to stay, it’s time to start crafting our policies accordingly” said Dimitris Avramopoulos. Just like Albert, Greek EU Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos voices the need to talk about migration in a different way and treat it like a structural problem instead of crisis management. He did so in an opinion peace for Politico on International Migrants Day on 18 December 2017.


The EU Commissioner for Migration’s message did not come out of the blue. A week prior a brawl broke out between the EU member states that expect more solidarity and help and European Council President Donald Tusk. In a white paper he had said that the EU would help and act accordingly to the needs of member states, but that migration was ultimately an issue that needs to be solved on a national level. After many disappointed and angry reactions, that white paper was changed to include more European commitment on the matter.

That is why now more than ever Albert feels the EU needs a comprehensive and common approach on migration policies. “It is only recently that the EU has been really talking about migration and surrounding policies but in the meantime each country has been working on their national approach. At this moment national politics determines a lot of the common policy for migration” he notes.


A fractured policy landscape

This vast scape of policies has pushed many irregular migrants and refugees that didn’t have their asylum requests accepted in one country into hiding. The difference in asylum procedures between EU member states makes that some take the risk of disappearing into illegality to move further North in hopes of having more chances at getting their asylum procedure accepted. This is particularly felt by his NGO while working with migrants. Therefore any process of helping migrants and refugees is subject to a lot of uncertainty.

For example, when you arrive as a minor in Spain, you are entitled to protection by law in Andalusia, Spain’s most southern province. But when you reach the legal age, you are usually thrown out of the detention centre and lose this access to basic protection and services. That is where an NGO like Albert’s CEPAIM comes in. They try to support irregular migrants and refugees in their asylum procedure, integration and building up their lives. Concretely that means their services range from helping with administrative procedures to teaching them Spanish to helping them find a job. All with a focus in building their self-reliance to integrate into Spanish society and emancipation on a social and bureaucratic level

If CEPAIM wouldn’t be there those people would be facing a double precarious situation. “They would be invisible in two ways; invisible to the government and even more invisible to society. This would expose them to grave danger” says Albert. This means these people need to find a different way to survive, often resorting to illicit work in the informal economy or even worse, prostitution or crime.

Political will

The EU Commission has already set out a roadmap to reform the Common European Asylum System. In February of last year it was prompted again to do so by a report from the European Committee of the Regions. One striking paragraph reads; “The European Committee of the Regions stresses the need for a comprehensive, overall approach which fosters sustainable policies on asylum and integration of asylum seekers and which involves the EU as a whole, in the framework of a system of genuine solidarity, including among member states”. And other than that paragraph a list of very concrete suggested measures is present that clearly shows the lessons learned from handling the aftermath of the refugee crisis.

One of those other remarks is “while appreciating the Commission’s effort to provide solutions to an urgent situation generating political pressure, believes that a more in-depth reflection is necessary which goes to the roots of the issue, taking into account international obligations, migrants’ rights and the needs of the different levels of government, throughout the EU, without overburdening the border countries or countries most exposed or prized by asylum seekers for the sake of form or principle”. This shows that the political will and insight is there, it just seems to be at the wrong level of EU governance.

What the examples of Italy and Greece show is that the EU Commission has resorted to looking further outward in solving the refugee crisis of 2015. The vast numbers of refugees coming to Greece via Turkey were brought down by the now well-known Turkey-deal. A deal that has become as infamous as it is successful in its purpose. Dealing closely with a country that, according to many experts, is dismantling its democracy on a humanitarian issue like migration is not necessarily the most structural solution for a country that wants to be a global moral leader on humanitarian issues. Next to that we have reports on the deals between Italy and Libyan militias to deter migrants violently from them crossing the Mediterranean towards Italian shores. These are some dubious ways of tackling EU migration issues that circumvent having a deeper conversation on responsibilities and cooperation between EU member states internally.

More structurally there are in chronological order the Rabat Process for the western migratory route (est. 2006), the Khartoum Process for eastern migratory route (est. 2014) and the Joint Valetta Action Plan (est. 2015), all of which set up a more formal cooperation between the EU, member states and African country leaders. The Rabat Process especially has been important in setting up regional cooperation between Spain and Morocco in stopping irregular migration and strengthening bilateral agreements. These projects to setup dialogue were financed by the EU and implemented by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). The ICMPD investigates on ‘some key elements of the Common European Asylum System, namely “solidarity”, “responsibility sharing” and “harmonisation” under the European Commission’s research investment programme Horizon2020.

While looking outward is one way of dealing with the issue of irregular migration, it is hard to escape which real need for reform is needed. In Albert’s case it is clearly shown that without a comprehensive and common EU approach on migration, people will keep choosing for illegality and disappear from our radars. In this way not able to change the narrative of unwanted side-effects coming with irregular migration and strengthening a positive narrative of people that are integrated, emancipated and contributing to European societies. And at the core of giving Albert more clarity and assurances in his work is handling the reform of the Common European Asylum System with at its core the reform of the Dublin Regulation.

Dublin Regulation

The Dublin Regulation now determines that the country of entry is responsible for dealing with the asylum request of immigrants entering Europe on its territory. But in the wake of the refugee crisis, it became clear that border countries like Spain, Italy and Greece had to bear the brunt of the work in handling the influx of people. This opened the debate on sharing the burdens in migration policy. The roadmap the EU Commission set out expects a new reform to be accomplished by June of this year.

The Commission wants to maintain the so-called “first country responsibility” principle and add a system of ‘corrective allocation’ that is triggered when the level of asylum seekers reaches a certain point. Then the asylum seekers would be allocated according to a quota to different member states. The Parliament wants to stop the “first country responsibility” principle, that puts most strain on border countries like Greece, Italy and Spain. They find it arbitrary that a common issue like migration could be determined by something as arbitrary as geographical location. Instead the Parliament wants to make the distribution of asylum seekers the main and permanent principle and allocate asylum seekers according to a set distribution key. Now the European Council has to decide on this and if European Council President Donald Tusk’s previous reservations towards give any indication, it seems like the Commission’s proposal will hold most sway.

That is why in April expert Martin Wagner of the International Centre for Migration Policy Development said the debate on the reform of the Dublin Regulation is gridlocked. Right now the EU Commission and the EU Parliament have two countering proposals as to how to renew the Dublin Regulation. He adds that other than the Dublin Regulation, most parts of the common European asylum system remained broadly based on a national level.



He writes “In some respect… Dublin contradicts the principles of solidarity, impedes a fair or purposeful sharing of responsibilities among the 32 Dublin countries and seems to be the stumbling block for reaching a consensus in June 2018… Only a fundamental adjustment of the Dublin system can open the doors for further progress towards a common European asylum system.”

Therefore he concludes: “Thus, ironically, the key for building a true and comprehensive European Asylum architecture may only succeed if the – at present – corner stone of the European Asylum system, the Dublin system, is sacrificed.” But he also notes that because of extensive “financial commitments” already made, it would be understandable that the European Commission tries to hold on to their own proposal of the Dublin Regulation.

And adding to that the fact that changing the Dublin Regulation would mean that EU member states from North, South East, Central and West would really have to show solidarity towards each other. The brawl between EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos and European Council President Donald Tusk shows that some member states have more to lose than gain in changing the regulation. Twenty years after its creation instead of being an instrument towards reaching a comprehensive and common EU migration policy the Dublin Regulation is now crippling reform. By being the only real common EU migration regulation, it has become both the torn in the side of border countries and the shield to hide behind for those unwilling to accept immigrants.

Even though Albert’s solidarity with incoming refugees and migrants has known no limit for twenty years, he is limited in what he can do by the solidarity between EU member states on the issue of migration. That is why for him the biggest challenge today is that a political solution needs to be found as soon as possible. For him changing our debate on migration and sharing the administrative, practical and financial burdens are the only way to improve upon how we deal with migration drastically. In his long career he hopes he won’t have to wait for the next migration crisis to hit Spain before drastic progress is finally made.