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“Everything depends on agreements with third countries”


According to migration researcher Koopmans, the EU asylum compromise will only work if repatriation agreements are concluded with third countries. Then, he says in an interview, there could even be less irregular immigration in the short term. What is at the heart of the interior ministers’ agreement on asylum policy?

Ruud Koopmans: The main change is the border procedure and something that has so far been less noticed in the reporting: that in future there should be the possibility of returning people whose asylum applications were rejected in these border procedures to safe third countries. This is the only way that the border procedure can be successfully implemented within twelve weeks.

Without the possibility of return to a safe third country, a migrant whose application was rejected would have to be returned to the country of origin. Then we talk about repatriation to countries where we know that repatriation is extremely difficult even under the current system and in any case takes much longer than twelve weeks. That requires signing agreements with countries to take in people who are rejected at the European border. We don’t have that at the moment.

Ruud Koopmans

To person

Ruud Koopmans is Professor of Sociology and Migration Research at the Humboldt University in Berlin and heads the “Migration, Integration, Transnationalization” research department at the Berlin Social Science Center. This year he published “The Asylum Lottery. A Balance Sheet on Refugee Policy from 2015 to the Ukraine War”.

“Migration Agreement would be a great win” Does this mean that yesterday’s decision is crucially based on the conclusion of further agreements?

Koopmans: Without such agreements, the plans will not work. There are agreements between individual states, such as Denmark and Rwanda, which have not yet been implemented, but show the possibility of such agreements. This Sunday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is traveling to Tunisia with the heads of government of the Netherlands and Italy to negotiate such a migration agreement. I’m excited to see what comes of it. It would be a great gain if it were possible to reduce the migration flows through the Sahara and from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Italy – also from a humanitarian point of view. Because that is the route on which by far the most deaths are to be regretted. What does this border and third-country procedure mean for migrants and refugees fleeing countries with a high protection rate, such as Afghanistan?

Koopmans: What matters here is the exact wording of the decision, which is not yet available. There are indications here that individual EU states will be free to include refugees from states with a higher protection rate in the border procedure, especially if they entered the country via a safe third country. This could mean that people from Syria or Afghanistan could also be rejected at the Italian border and then receive protection in Tunisia. But that is subject to the final text.

“Border procedures without an agreement do not work” There are already such border procedures in the hotspots in Greece. Has this procedure proved so successful that it is now being expanded?

Koopmans: No. What these hotspots in Greece show is precisely that such a border procedure will not work without agreements with third countries. Then it becomes extremely difficult to deport rejected asylum seekers, and people stay in the hotspots for a long time. This in turn can lead to a catastrophic situation that is unacceptable from a humanitarian point of view, as is the case now in the Greek hotspots. If there are agreements with third countries, the time that people would have to spend in the border camps would be short. And it would take away an incentive to embark on the perilous journey across the Sahara and across the Mediterranean. Everything depends on that.

“That’s not fair compensation” If a country like Italy triggers the solidarity mechanism because too many refugees are arriving, a distribution key should apply within the EU. Countries that do not participate, such as Hungary or Poland, are to pay around 20,000 euros for each refugee they do not take in. Is that a fair balance?

Koopmans: No, that is far below the actual costs involved in taking in, accommodating and integrating refugees. It is a long process before most refugees are able to support themselves. So that’s not fair compensation. You also have to see whether Poland and Hungary actually pay.

Everything stands and falls with whether this new procedure will succeed in significantly reducing the number of irregular migrants. Only then will the number of refugees for Italy or Greece remain at an acceptable level. Only then would it be guaranteed that countries like the Netherlands or Germany would be willing to take their share if the numbers got too big. Otherwise there will certainly be acceptance problems there too.

“This does not abolish the right to asylum” Critics call the decision a frontal attack on the right to asylum as we know it in Germany. Is that a valid interpretation?

Koopmans: This is a completely unfounded exaggeration. This does not abolish the right to asylum. Everyone still has the right to apply for asylum. There is a faster procedure for certain groups only. And that too still takes place under legal supervision and according to the rules of international law. And repatriation only takes place in countries of origin or countries that are safe. If you are then returned to a safe third country, the requirements of the Geneva Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights also apply.

The only thing that might be overridden, especially in the context of safe third countries, would be the principle that asylum seekers have the right to be protected in Europe. However, there is no internationally recognized right to apply for asylum in the European Union or in a specific destination country such as Germany. There is an internationally secured right to protection and also to the review of an application for protection. But where this protection is realized is not the subject of international or European law. Something is being defended that is not a human right at all.

“Exception undermines effectiveness” Germany has ensured that minors are not included in the border procedure, but has failed in its desire to keep families with children out of this procedure. How serious is that?

Koopmans: I would have preferred it if the decision had been reversed. The problem with the exception for minors is that the majority of migrants are males in either adolescence or young adulthood. And it is precisely those from countries with low protection rates who hide or throw away their identity papers and then often pretend to be minors, even though they are not. This exception thus seriously undermines the effectiveness of border procedures.

“Agreements could be concluded at short notice” What is your prognosis, Mr. Koopmans? Will we be talking about the same questions again in two years, or will we then evaluate a completely different refugee policy?

Koopmans: If the agreements that have been made known so far remain the same, if they pass the European Parliament without changes and are implemented in national legislation, which will take several years, then nothing will change. And then we will not only be talking about the same problems in two years, but sooner than before the asylum compromise.

Everything depends on whether the following steps are taken now and the agreements with the countries of origin and safe third countries are concluded. If that succeeds, we’ll be in a completely different situation in two years’ time. It may even be possible to conclude agreements with third countries at short notice.

This was also shown by the agreement between the EU and Turkey in 2016. It took less than six months from the start of the negotiations to the conclusion of the negotiations. Then there could be a reduction in irregular immigration this year. This is the royal road.

The conversation was led by Eckart Aretz,

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