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"It is a catastrophe" – Interview with Ska Keller on the EU's refugee policies

This year hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered the EU in the hope of a new life and a safer future for themselves and their families. However, instead of welcoming them, European politicians are trying to keep them out EU territory, or at least away from their own countries. The fundamentally flawed Dublin regulation expects countries at the outer borders of the EU to take the biggest burden for refugees entering Europe. Although it is obvious that the system is on the brink of collapse, no solution is in sight. We asked Green MEP Ska Keller to evaluate the situation.

Hungary: Budapest, 4 September 2015 

In response to hundreds of refugees and other migrants taking to the road with the aim of walking to Austria, Hungarian Red Cross immediately activited its response teams. The Red Cross has been providing food, water, blankets, clothes and first aid to those in need along the main highway from Budapest to Austria. 

Over 140,000 people have applied for asylum in Hungary already in 2015. In recent weeks, the number of people arriving in the country has increased dramatically, resulting in a major bottle neck and leaving hundreds sleeping rough at train stations each night. 

Photo: Stephen Ryan / IFRC

What do you think about last week’s meeting between the interior ministers of Europe? Do you think that we are one step closer to the solution?

The council meeting last week was disastrous. Even though there was a stronger political backing from the heads of states than ever before and there was political pressure to finally do something, the ministers didn’t achieve anything. When you look at the conclusions you’ll see that they only agreed to strengthen the borders. Great – more fences, and that’s it.

The only positive outcome of this meeting is that there’s now a little bit more support for Greece, as the country is now under immense pressure, but the permanent relocation scheme doesn’t get mentioned at all, nor does the Dublin reform that Angela Merkel and François Hollande were pushing for, and for the relocation of 120,000 refugees they only say, “in principle, yes”, but we’ll see. It’s very disappointing.

Was it mainly the Eastern Member States, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary, that were reluctant?

Not only them. There are a lot of Eastern Member States who are against the Merkel-Hollande proposal, but there are also Northern, Western and Southern countries who oppose it. Denmark, for example, and the UK were opting out, even though Ireland was opting in. Austria, at least in the last scheme, didn’t play a great role at all, and Spain was also very reluctant, so it’s really not an Eastern European issue.

Wouldn’t it be possible to just leave some countries out of the decision, if they don’t want to cooperate?

Yes, you can make decisions with a qualified majority, you don’t necessarily need to have a consensus. From what we hear about how countries position themselves there could have been a qualified majority to go ahead with the relocation scheme. The reason we have this stalemate is that the member states chose to make a unanimous decision, which didn’t work thus far.

But a solution is needed as soon as possible, as winter is approaching, and we don’t want people to sleep on the streets. Do you think something will happen when the ministers meet again?

On the 22nd of September there’s going to be yet another emergency extraordinary council meeting. I hope, obviously, that they come up with something. But I’m just not sure they will. It’s a catastrophe, because as you say, it’s getting colder, and people are not being let into the European Union at all. The fence at the Hungarian border is a complete disgrace and it really has become a crisis of Europe itself.

It’s not so much a question of whether it is possible to house a million or something refugees – as such that should be doable. We have 500 million inhabitants in Europe, so we should be able to cope with a million people coming. Yes, it would put a strain on the asylum system, and yes, it would be a challenge, but if you manage it well, you can do it without too many problems.

How many refugees can be accepted in Europe – is there a maximum number?

You can’t put a cap on refugees because refugees are people who flee from persecution and there are all sorts of laws and conventions to accept and give protection to them. It’s a human right to ask for asylum.

That’s clear in the case of people coming from Syria or Afghanistan. But, for example, what about people who come from Kosovo? There are many of them applying for asylum in Europe, but their country is a candidate for EU accession.

We can see that, for example, in Finland, a lot of people from Kosovo get asylum because minorities especially, such as the Roma, are facing a lot of discrimination in that country. Lots of people are denied market access, housing and political rights, among other things. These can very much constitute the need for recognition for asylum, so these people cannot be excluded. You always have to look at the individual case. You can never say a country is absolutely safe and no one from there can find protection. The right to asylum is individual – it’s linked to you personally, not to your country.

So you wouldn’t agree with calling any country a, “safe third country”?

Absolutely not.

Should there be a difference in the way they process the applications of someone from Syria and someone from the Balkans?

Yes. There should be a fast track procedure for the people fleeing the war in Syria, as in their case it is obvious that they cannot return to their countries. By contrast, in the case of the Balkans you really need time to investigate the situation of the particular person.

Would there be some way to coordinate between refugee policies and migration policies? For example, lots of people from the candidate countries in the Balkans don’t have any other option than to apply for refugee status if they want to work here. Do you think there could be a solution for that?

I completely agree that this is a big problem because people want to come but they don’t see any other opportunity. We have different immigration laws in different European countries. The only thing we have in common is the entry and residence directive, but even that was implemented differently in all the member states. So, I think we should have common rules for immigration and not just for the highly qualified. We need to have a migration law that is clear. We have to have an asylum system with the rescue at sea and with the Dublin system, and we also need to think about the reasons why people have to flee.

In his State of the Union speech, Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned climate refugees – an issue that is very important for the Greens. Do you think we need to take this into consideration when formulating policy responses to the current situation?

Climate refugees already exist and they just don’t come to Europe at the moment. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) estimates that approximately half of the internally displaced people are fleeing because of climate change and environmental degradation. Most of these people would just go to the next village or to the next bigger city, but that might change of course, and it’s certainly not a reason to close our borders before them.

So, if someone were to arrive to an EU border and declare themselves a climate refugee, would this person have a chance to receive asylum?

Some countries, such as Sweden or Finland, do accept climate refugees in principle, but they have never had a single case where they had someone apply for asylum based on environmental issues. But for most of Europe it is true that the authorities are not prepared for the arrival of climate refugees.

However, since the problem is elsewhere, and not yet at the borders of Europe, I believe it would be very important to support developing countries so that they can better deal with climate change and its effects.

And what should we do with those people who are already in Europe but who haven’t received asylum?

It’s a ridiculous situation for lots of people. There are people who don’t get asylum, even though they come from a war-torn country. It’s very clear that they cannot be sent back to the conflict zone, so they end up in a limbo-like situation: they have a permit to stay for some time which is being prolonged and prolonged endlessly, but still they don’t get the status of a refugee. For those kinds of people I think it’s really important to establish that – in case the situation in their home country hasn’t changed a year after they came to Europe – they should be given the chance to stay permanently.

It is really important to give those people a perspective. And when you are talking about returning these people to their home countries, you also have to acknowledge the fact that if you send people back without helping them to subsist, they’re going to be back in your country in a few weeks.

What about the Dublin regulation? Do we want to reform it or do we want to throw it out of the window?

I don’t mind what you call it: if we reform it in the way we want then it won’t look the same at all. What we want is a distribution system that is fair for the member states but also fair for the asylum seekers, so we make sure that all member states participate – that they all give a share to housing refugees, but that the refugees can voice their priories to determine where they want to go, which could be for family reasons, for community reasons, language skills, qualifications, and so on.

In theory, we can come up with a new and fair system of allocating refugees in Europe. But what if the refugees say they all want to go to Germany or Sweden or Denmark and no one wants to go to Spain or Hungary?

The reason why people don’t want to go to Hungary is that the Hungarian government doesn’t want them. That is the point: they want to go to Germany because Merkel says Germany is willing to accept refugees. If the governments were welcoming, people wouldn’t be afraid to go to any country. We know that if you inform people about the conditions in a country, if you tell them that it is different from their preferred destination, but nevertheless a good place to set up a new life, they are more willing to accept the fact that they are supposed to stay there. People are afraid of Hungary, because they know what’s happening there. Already for years it has been a traumatic experience for people who have been seeking asylum in Hungary because they were detained and they were mistreated… that needs to change.

Also, if we say we want to relocate 50,000 people from Greece – 50,000 is what arrives there in less than two weeks – and we have 2000 places in Sweden, we can ask them: who has family in Sweden? Some will, others won’t. You will never have a shortage of people, and you will find enough people who will be willing to go Lithuania or Slovakia. So that’s really not an issue as long as we talk about those numbers.

But we are inside the Schengen zone, so what will happen if someone settles down, let’s say, in Slovakia, and then gets offered a job in Germany?

Why would this be a problem? In this case this person is a recognised refugee and should become a citizen very quickly, so why shouldn’t they be able to move around Europe as we all can?

So having a certain number of refugees in each country is only important for the time when their application is processed and they receive benefits from the state? Afterwards, when they start working, it doesn’t matter?

It’s important for their asylum application. Because one of the member states has to take the responsibility for it. Currently we have the problem that the refugee is bound to the state that deals with the asylum application, even five years after asylum was granted. So, if we were to cut that time and say directly after the application is approved that you can go anywhere you want, then we would already have gotten rid of half of the problems we have with Dublin. But right now the procedure takes so long that the refugee might have to stay there for seven or eight years. That’s a long time, and thus it is a big decision to make.

What should we do with the possible security threats that may or may not arise from the arrival of refugees?

Obviously, you have a lot of security threats from terrorism. But those threats are in the countries these people are fleeing from. The kind of security threat you experience in Europe is the one caused by right wing extremists who are attacking refugee homes and are committing all kinds of terrorist attacks. It’s not the refugees who attack people.

So we are not afraid of people who might be associated with the Islamic State or al-Nusra or any other organisations that might show up at our borders?

There is no sign at the moment that terrorists are amongst the actual refugees. I think that this would also be really unlikely because terrorist organisations are really rich and would send their people by plane and with fake passports if they were planning to attack Europe, not with a small boat where you have no idea whether they are going to survive or not. The biggest problem associated with terrorism and migration is that people are leaving Europe in order to join IS and fight in the Middle East – not the other way around.

You mentioned people who left Europe for IS. Is this because integration policies have failed?

One of our biggest problems is that there are lots of Muslims who feel excluded from society in Europe. This is not surprising when you look at all the anti-Muslim statements by politicians. In such a situation it’s much easier for people to be attracted by extremist groups who say, ‘Look, they don’t accept you and they don’t like you and will never accept you…’ That is indeed a problem.

Is there something that Europe can do to end the conflict in Syria so that people don’t have to flee?

Of course, that is the million dollar question and it’s not easy to answer it. I believe that any solution would need to be political and diplomatic.

So sending troops wouldn’t be a solution?

No. People are fleeing from bombs, so if you send more bombs, you’ll have more refugees.

Some may argue that you can only end a war by sending troops there.

That is not a good idea. Usually, wars really don’t help to solve the problems that cause wars and they certainly don’t bring a sustainable solution. Especially in Syria, where the situation is so complicated. You have all those foreign interests there, and you can’t just bomb the problems away.

What can we do with other potential conflicts zones? Do you think that if we decided to spend more on development corporation that would improve the situation?

Certainly. The EU needs to be much stronger on conflict prevention because currently this potential is not used. We also need to have a coherent policy, because currently the EU has, on the one hand, a development fund, but on the other hand it has a bunch of other policies that undermine the development efforts. You can’t just decide to export more milk powder to the developing world, for example, if it is really, really, harmful to a lot of farmers. We’re generating problems here and we’re not helping developing countries as much as we should in order to be efficient.

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