In June, European Member States struck a ‘migration deal’, in which the countries agreed to turn away people who are unlikely to be granted asylum at the borders of the EU. Member States also promised to provide ‘arrival countries’ such as Italy and Greece with genuine assistance with relocating asylum seekers or to make a payment to be released from the obligation. According to State Secretary Eric van der Burg (Justice and Security), this will ensure a much lower influx of asylum seekers. The new Dutch distribution law – that still needs to pass parliament –  stipulates that municipalities that make long-term reception facilities available for asylum seekers in the short term will receive compensation. Municipalities that wait and see or only provide temporary reception will receive less. If there are not enough reception facilities in a year’s time, Van der Burg may begin compelling municipalities to take action.

Will the migration deal and the distribution law be beneficial to the Netherlands or to asylum seekers in some way?

“I don’t think so. None what was agreed upon in Brussels is terribly new: there were already agreements in place to distribute asylum seekers more fairly across Europe. The problem was simply that they were not being observed – certainly not by the Netherlands. And Member States want to turn away ‘underprivileged’ asylum seekers immediately at the European borders. Again, this is not a new policy, and the problem is precisely that in practice it is very complicated to carefully distinguish between promising asylum applications and applications that are likely to fail.”

Professor of Migration and Diversity Policy Peter Scholten and EUR researchers Elina Jonitz and Maria Schiller examined the distribution law. They subsequently authored a joint opinion piece on the issue in Trouw.

The deal also includes a new component that allows Member States to forego the reception of asylum seekers by paying other countries to receive them. How do you feel about this?

“The fact that rich countries are going to start paying is a positive development, however the question is whether this is something you want within the European Union. The big idea behind European solidarity is that we handle issues like the reception of refugees together – not just on the fringes of Europe. Now we’re going to be pay Greece to do it for us, but that country has been in a very complex political situation since the financial crisis, so I am not convinced that would be a very sustainable solution.”

Do you think those accelerated checks at the EU borders will work?

“I’m quite sceptical about that. This is something we’ve wanted to have in place since the 1990s – but it never works. The argument in favour of an accelerated procedure is always that an extensive, diligent procedure would only act as a pull factor, which is something I am very critical of. If you were to accelerate the asylum process, it could simply have a boomerang effect. In fact, studies have shown that the asylum process should really be conducted very diligently – thorough explanation, examining all the various factors – which means people will be more likely to turn back as they’ve gone through a legitimate process as an asylum seeker.

“Imagine that you’ve arrived here in the Netherlands, you’ve had to sleep in the street in Ter Apel, and then you feel you’re not taken seriously, that your story hasn’t been heard, with the IND issuing you with some decision that feels cobbled together, to boot. In that case, you’d just try again, because you would feel like you hadn’t been taken seriously. So when I hear how enthusiastic Van der Burg is, I think: is this the best that Europe could come up with? It really won’t make ‘a huge difference’, as the State Secretary said it would.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Would the migration deal lead to fewer refugees drowning in the Mediterranean?

“I don’t see that happening overnight. I think it’s an illusion to think that this would discourage people from coming to Europe. It means creating a blind spot in respect of the desperation people have when they decide to migrate.

“In addition, the EU is trying to reach agreements with Tunisia and Morocco to receive and detain refugees there before they attempt the crossing. This has received a lot of criticism, as the inequality in those countries will increase enormously as a result of refugee detention.

“I think we need to take a much broader view of asylum policy as a whole than just the idea of who we admit and who we don’t. We need to look for structural answers and not always resort to quick fixes.”

What would a structural response like that look like?

“We shouldn’t pretend that we, as the EU, have no influence on the origin of these migration flows. The climate problems created by the activities of a multinational like Shell in Nigeria or the dumping of agricultural products at low prices as result of European agricultural subsidies fuel migration to Europe. However, that link between the economic activities of companies – including Dutch companies – and migration is studiously avoided in politics.

“In my opinion, any structural response requires examining that link. And we need to think realistically about who is coming in and what is needed to provide a humane reception of refugees. We always talk about protecting European values, so let’s apply them in our asylum process. That doesn’t mean that everyone can just stay, but it does mean taking a serious approach to making that assessment.”

This could increase the influx of refugees, which is precisely what Van der Burg is seeking to decrease due to concerns about the Netherlands not being able to cope.

“I do understand that there need to be border policies in place. Naturally, Europe must ensure that social policies and some form of the welfare state can remain intact. It’s an important aspect. However, politicians often regard asylum policy simply as a balance between entry and exit , which is far too narrow a view on migration.

“Our asylum system is geared towards political and war refugees, whom we grant entry and for whom we always have room. The fact that we only consider the issue to be based on whether someone has a good reason to flee is a problem. We could equally broaden our scope and look at whether someone could be useful to the European economy. I’m surprised that the social debate on migration does not also consider the economic contribution and contribution to society someone could make, because we’re seeing a lot of potential among refugees, tech-savvy individuals as well as young families, who, if accommodated in small towns, would potentially be able to prevent a local school and supermarket from having to close down.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Municipalities that are able to establish reception facilities rapidly, and preferably for the long term, are set to receive more money from the government than if they were to wait or provide more temporary accommodation. Doesn’t this mean running the risk of the poorest municipalities, which are least able to accommodate refugees, volunteering for the scheme?

“When I read that, I thought: the government is packed with very clever people – why on earth would they propose something like that? I’m sure they must be aware that this is a bad idea in the mid to long term. It’s an uncomfortable situation. The municipality that volunteers first, to get the money, may not automatically be the best place to establish a reception centre. It should also be reviewed whether those towns could offer enough opportunities for migrants, to connect with society, through schools, work or traineeships.

“The major cities have an enormous capacity for inclusion and small towns are far less able to do that, meaning that, in that sense, distribution can actually have the opposite effect, if we don’t use it wisely. In fact, inclusion is not a consideration within the distribution law at all. Right now, the government has taken a blind approach to distribution. I fear that in five years’ time, we will be faced with the next problem: namely, that people with a residence permit are poorly integrated because they were unable to find internships or work or join associations or entrepreneurs. This will only widen the gap all the more, which will then be blamed on asylum seekers – whereas we are the ones currently sowing the seeds for that in our own policies.”

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