Will the Schengen Agreement soon be a thing of the past? Not if Europe agrees on a common solution with regard to the refugee crisis, writes Stephanie Liechtenstein.
Since 1999, the European Union has been working on creating a common European asylum system. So far, EU member states have been unable to put a common system into place, mainly due to having fundamentally different interests in the issue. Instead, the current legal framework consists of several directives, which aim at ensuring (i) fair asylum procedures; (ii) equal and human reception conditions; (iii) equal grounds for granting asylum. In addition, the so-called Dublin III Regulation establishes the EU member state responsible for examining asylum applications.
Yet the current refugee crisis, which is among the greatest catastrophes of this kind since the end of World War II, has exposed the weaknesses of this legislative framework and underlined the need to overhaul it.
The main problem concerns provisions in the Dublin III Regulation stipulating that asylum applications must be filed and processed in the state in which the asylum seeker first entered the EU. If asylum seekers cross the border into another EU member state, they can be sent back to the state through which they first entered the EU. This puts the onus on the states at the edge of the EU, such as Greece, Italy or Hungary.
This burden becomes particularly difficult to bear in the case of a sudden massive influx, as the one witnessed now. The states on the periphery of the EU are overwhelmed with refugees and have difficulties registering them all and processing asylum claims, let alone maintaining control of the EU’s external borders.
Furthermore, living conditions for refugees in overcrowded reception centres in these countries have become intolerably inhumane, deepening the drama. This has led to many refugees continuing their journey on to other EU member states, mainly from Hungary, across a continent without borders – until recently.
On 13 September, the situation changed drastically when Germany decided to reinstate border controls along its border with Austria in an attempt to slow down the refugee influx and to regain a degree of control over who is entering the country. Although many politicians recognise that reinstating border controls will not stop the movement of refugees altogether, Austria quickly followed suit and reintroduced controls along its border with Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia. Other countries have announced similar measures, including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Hence, the Schengen system of open borders, one of the main achievements of the EU, has come under intense pressure as a result of the refugee crisis and the lack of a common European response to it. This has the potential to threaten the EU as we know it today. The reintroduction of border controls should therefore serve as a wake-up call to European governments and lead them to taking collective action.
In the short-term, EU member states should agree on a relocation mechanism, as well as fair quotas. They also need to make it possible to apply for asylum in key hubs in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and thus enable a legal way of coming to Europe.
Ideally, the United Nations should support the EU by helping to resettle Syrian refugees globally (as called for recently by the International Peace Institute). In this way, the refugee flow can be dealt with in an organised and coordinated manner and borders in Europe can be opened again. In the long-term, a common European asylum system, based on solidarity and a shared approach, must be created that reflects the ideals of the European Union.