Immigration and asylum are topics of great interest to European citizens. However, drawing attention to these important issues involves three risks which must be avoided at all cost.
The first risk is that of a negative view of migratory flows, aggravated by the current context of economic crisis which may provoke defensive mechanisms or xenophobic reactions.
We need immigration to protect Europe against the demographic crisis which threatens our economies and our social protection systems.
The second risk is that of conflating immigration and asylum, a risk which is exacerbated by the mixed nature of the flows of migrants arriving in Europe. An economic migrant is not the same as a refugee fleeing persecution in times of war or ethnic violence. The third risk is that of believing that migratory flows and the right to asylum can be dealt with mainly at national level, without the need for very close coordination within Europe. Such fragmentation of migratory policies is an absurdity within the borderless Schengen area.
To counter these three risks, the Union has, for the last 10 years, maintained a common policy which is now beginning to bear fruit.
We have not fully appreciated the progress represented by the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum adopted under the French Presidency. Under the Commission's impetus and thanks to the tireless work of Minister Brice Hortefeux, our 27 member states are now united by shared principles. Now is the time to move on from the pact to action!
I am pouring all my energies into this task, by putting forward a large number of legislative proposals designed to build a European immigration and asylum policy that combines solidarity and responsibility. I shall give two key examples. A duty to provide asylum that is rooted in solidarity. As a laboratory for reconciliation, Europe has a duty to take in those suffering from persecution. The values of respect for human dignity, tolerance and freedom underpinning the Union enjoin it to do so. European solidarity must encompass two facets. On the one hand, there is solidarity with refugees, the conditions for whose reception must be improved, irrespective of the member state where they apply for asylum, and who must ultimately be covered by a single procedure. On the other, we have solidarity between member states, to take the pressure off certain countries that are being overwhelmed by migration because of their geographical position.
Malta, with its 400,000 habitants, experienced a 100 per cent rise in the number of asylum applicants between 2007 and 2008, to nine asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants, compared to the European average of 0.5. I have proposed that the Dublin Regulation be amended so that asylum applicants can claim their rights in a member state other than the first country to admit them, if the member state concerned is foundering under the pressure of applications and no longer has the capacity to examine them properly.
Many member states are reluctant to accept such an amendment, which enjoys strong support from the European Parliament. Yet there is a vital need to think about how to set up a voluntary programme for the balanced distribution of refugees within Europe. This solidarity must go hand in hand with a sense of responsibility as regards the management of migratory flows. Such responsibility implies that Europe, as well as the countries of origin and transit, must engage in a genuinely coordinated approach - coordinated management of unlawful migration, encompassing a determined battle against the criminal networks of people traffickers who exploit human misery, increased border surveillance (entailing the reinforcement of our Frontex agency), and the development of readmission agreements, which are a precondition for returns that respect human dignity. Unlawful immigration jeopardises the integration of regular immigrants, an area in which Europe needs to make a great deal of progress. Above all, though, it leads to terrible human tragedies.
Since 2002, at least 4,000 people have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean in makeshift boats. There is an urgent need for us to establish a dialogue with the countries of East and North Africa, the point of departure or transit for the vast majority of migrants. It is estimated that nearly two million people who want to leave for Europe are currently living in Libya. At the last meeting of the Council of Ministers for Home Affairs, I stressed the urgent need to establish far closer cooperation with the countries on the southern side of the Mediterranean, so as to effectively combat people traffickers and establish arrangements for the reception and protection of asylum-seekers which meet international standards. These issues should be dealt with at an international conference which could be held in Tripoli during the Libyan Presidency of the African Union.
A responsible migration policy also involves coordinating the management of regular immigration between the Union and third countries, which should benefit both parties. This win-win situation should enable Europe to benefit for a given period from the skills and labour of regular immigrants, who will return to their countries of origin enriched by this experience. The Council has recently adopted the proposal for a "blue card" for skilled workers. And in the course of the next few weeks I shall put forward new proposals for directives on seasonal workers and paid interns.
We must convince our partners that "circular migration" offers opportunities to both sides. It is currently estimated that financial transfers between the European Union and Africa amount to €80 billion a year, which is nearly three times as much as our development aid! This shows us how difficult it is to establish mobility in both directions! However, such mobility is vital to avoid the risk of a brain drain and the permanent loss of manpower to the detriment of third countries.
European immigration and asylum policy calls for an unprecedented dialogue with third countries, which must understand not only that Europe cannot open its arms to everyone, but - above all - that in a globalised world the loss of their own human resources will be disastrous in the long term. The Europeans must both show genuine solidarity and demand the sharing of responsibility with the countries of origin and transit. This policy clearly implies linking development aid with the coordinated management of migratory flows.
This is the real condition underpinning a humane and efficient response to the increase in migratory flows, one of the major challenges of the 21st century!
The author is European Commission vice-president, responsible of justice, freedom and security.
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