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European Encounters: “We Need More Amsterdam in Sicily”


If the EU fails to address the refugee and migration crisis, the whole project may disintegrate. Gerald Knaus, architect of the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees, German MP Andreas Nick, and Italian migration expert Nadan Petrovic sketch a way out.

© Artwork: Arnaud Dechiron

Welcome! The EU-Turkey agreement reached last year helped stem the flow of refugees arriving in Europe through Greece. Now, however, attention is shifting to Italy, where people – both refugees and economic migrants – are still arriving in unsustainable numbers, straining local and European capacities. What should be done to address this new crisis?
Gerald Knaus: It’s a great pleasure to be here to talk about the issue with people from think tanks, as well as members of parliament. I know Italy has a lot of experience in dealing with the issue, and it’s very good at implementing what politicians decide when it comes to reception permissions and implementing new ideas of asylum. The key problem in a lot of debates of practical policy issues is that they become overly ideological rather than practical. Of course, ideology and laws matter – but we run into problems if we can’t implement what we discuss.
A few numbers regarding this EU-Turkey agreement might be helpful. For the five months this year up to May, fewer than fifty people per day came from Turkey to Greece. If this trend continues, this year will see the fewest people going from Turkey to Greece in the past ten years. And it will also mean that this year will have the lowest number of people drowning. There are many things to criticize, but it’s still a big accomplishment. The outlying year of 2015 had more than 880,000 people arriving from Turkey; this year it dropped to 18,000.
Italy also has strong fluctuations, but there’s been a steady rise from high levels in 2014. This year will be a record year. Last year it had 181,000, and the first months of this year have already seen more people than the two previous years. So we have now a completely reversed situation: a sharp decline in the Aegean and big rise in the central Mediterranean.
Every day, twelve people drown in the central Mediterranean, and this trend is continuing. In contrast, the 434 deaths in 2016 in the Aegean were almost all within the first three months before the Turkey deal. People have to be saved from drowning at sea and be brought to Italy.
There also different groups coming to Greece and Italy. In Italy there are almost no Syrians, but rather Africans, the vast majority West Africans. This is interesting, because the recognition rates for Africans are very low. Most of them are not refugees. There are some refugees from Nigeria and Congo, but they are not the ones who come to Italy. The vast majority of them do not get protection – the recognition rate is between 1 to 3 percent.
The problem is that even when they’re rejected, they never return. Once they’re in Europe, they will stay for years regardless of what happens in their application procedure. This is not a problem for Italy only, but also for many other European countries including France and Germany, the Baltic countries, and Sweden. Sweden had 180,000 people arrive in 2015.
In order to return people quickly we need two things: we need fast and accurate asylum recognition and application procedures, and we need the countries’ willingness to take people back. This leads to what we call Day X for return. And this was the secret of the Turkey agreement. The Turkish parties came to Chancellor Merkel and promised to take care of everyone who arrived in Greece after March 18, 2016. Those who arrived before, Germany would take. That’s the key point. We should not underestimate the fact that the financial crisis, poverty, and the extreme challenge of taking in so many refugees created uncertainty and fear. Of course, some politicians take advantage of these feelings and if we try to explain this passion, I’m not sure it is passion for Brexit or for these politics themselves – I think it is a more instinctive reaction to the fear they feel, to the easy promises they’re hearing. It is a movement against a system that does not seem to function as it once did; it cannot fulfill the promises it has made. And we should also talk about why the existing system – at least in the Western world – does not function for people anymore.
Andreas Nick: I agree, the EU-Turkey deal has been successful. It rests on three pillars: better border protection, financial support for Turkey, and legal assistance for Syrians upon reception. A lot of these mechanisms also translate to other situations. Going to countries of origin to forge agreements is very important.
There are three key elements: The first is to differentiate between asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants who come in search of better economic opportunities. The fact that so many asylum seekers remain in Europe is an enormous pull factor for many others who come despite the horrible dangers of such a undertaking. That should be ended, for humanitarian reasons. The second element is good decision making for migrants that have arrived. The third element is incentive structures for all relevant countries, on a national as well as regional basis. A strong message should be sent that if you’re returned after applying for asylum, you’re not eligible to apply as an “economic migrant” to any other EU country.
There are many differences between Turkey and Italy. Refugees from the Syrian civil war just want to get away from the war and usually intend to return. Therefore, we have to deal with a temporary phenomenon. When it comes to migrants from Africa via the Mediterranean we have to deal with a long-term issue that cannot be solved within a short period of time.
The long-term rescue missions in the Mediterranean need to be combined with quick decision-making once people arrive, along with working with governments of their countries of origin. If the message is that once you make it to Sicily or Malta you are safe to stay, the problem will never be solved.

Nadan, you’ve had quite a lot of experience with how Italy deals with this issue. Can a distinction be made between refugees and migrants?
Nadan Petrovic: Theoretically there are refugees as defined in the Geneva Convention. And there are economic migrants. But now the situation is more complicated as we have encountered unforeseen situations. For example, we’ve had unaccompanied minors from Somalia being sent by the government, which is a very unique phenomenon. The government knows that they will not be rejected, so these young boys and girls go on an often month-long journey across the desert until often after encountering horrible violence they finally arrive in Europe. What are we to do with a group like that?
As different as the nationalities of the migrants are, these states share common characteristics: They are all inherently unstable. Some of them are failed states, like Libya; some of them are precarious states; and some of them are very authoritarian states like Egypt. And most of them have very weak or opaque government structures. In terms of speaking with countries of origin for example, Libya – who do you talk to? The question is how to strengthen the structures of those states to make sure people can be sent back to them. With the Turkey deal, nothing changed in Syria – the causes have not been addressed. But Turkey can take back people. Can we see this in Africa?
Knaus: I think it’s very important to recognize that the number of people who arrived over the past four or five years is exceptionally high. This is because the route has been developed, and there are hundreds of millions of euros being earned. And if you look at Nigeria, most migrants come from southern Nigeria, from peaceful cities – and most of them are women who are trafficked to Italy as prostitutes with huge profits for the traffickers.
We can thus recognize 1 percent of these migrants. If people are arriving in an orderly way and know where they are, the situation will be better. But now, people are dying on the way in the desert, at sea, and they arrive without any status. Then they stay for years, exploitable underground. In Italy there’s a campaign now to regularize the 500,000 people that are already in the country who will not leave but have no status. Politically, regularizing them is the only rational thing to do.

Andreas, even with some kind of Marshall Plan to develop the countries of origin, people will come anyway. Don’t we have to communicate to their countries of origin – as well into some of Europe’s more conservative parties, including your own – that we need to have a proper immigration law? That we need to take people in, in an orderly way, in order to get irregular migration under control?
Nick: I do think these things are interrelated. Both to communicate to a broader electorate and also to make it vertically possible to negotiate. Creating a very strong disincentive for people to come to Europe, for example, is a consensus among both the center left and center right.
Knaus: Just one more point on the importance of having a controled process: If you want to be politically successful, looking at Sweden and Germany, you need to really help refugees. There are massive networks of NGOs, civil society organizations, and help organizations, and you need to mobilize them. What people will not accept is a sense of loss of control. And loss of control means you do not know who is coming in. If one in a million commits an act of terror, people suddenly think the others could do it too.
Another point is that it’s not really fair. So Italy will need to reduce crime and also educate people about the need to accept migrants. Europe will have to stand up for resettlement. I’ve had three years of debate all around Europe about this. If we want to create an open Europe that accepts refugees as well as economic migrants, we must have control of our borders. And the only way to do so, and amazingly it’s lacking today, is to take countries we need to cooperate with seriously, and think in terms of their interests. In the case of Turkey, it sees that it can benefit from the deal: It can get financial support, and will need fewer border controls because the flow of people will decrease.
This discussion is never public. We talk about financial aid and legal access, but never in specifics. We need to work on a single-page statement with the same format with Senegal and other African countries, which has four commitments: First, that we [the African countries] take back our citizens and help take back our citizens from day X. Second, the EU commits for the next five years to take 10,000 or 15,000 refugees from Nigeria and 10,000 people from Senegal every year. Third, we provide support in those countries to help refugees, and fourth, we do receptions through UNHCR. Everybody can see if each side has done its part and lived up to its commitments.
If we keep having incomprehensible conferences and compacts and summits, this situation will continue and people will keep drowning.

You’re talking about a pretty dramatic shift in attitudes here: no more summits, no more thousand-page-agreements, etc. In a situation like this where we want to keep migration, how likely is it that the EU can consolidate in a straightforward way – or is it more likely that we will see a coalition of the willing? 
Nick: Looking at the debate over the past few years, we see there are many differences among countries. But we have also seen cooperation, for example, in the development fund. If the crisis in Italy continues, it will reach a different dimension. This is not only German policy and Merkel’s migration policy. Right now is the time for countries to cooperate to strengthen the single market and jointly manage the common border. This is a crisis that can affect our common economic success and welfare. If we get that message across, hopefully we can better solve the problem.

Nadan, do you want to comment on this? What should be done to help those countries that need to change?
Petrovic: My impression, at least from my experiences in Italy, is that political elites are not very clear who is who. But I want to explain very clearly that refugees also have full rights. There’s a need to separate different kinds of migrants. When states have the capacity to decide whether or not they need migrants, most of them decide that they do need them. But the reality is that they don’t want to say it clearly, and now people are coming in without invitation. I want to insist that a well-functioning migration policy is better than a refugee policy. In the Italian example, there is a temporary permission status for migrants from Bosnia, Kosovo, or Moldova. They have temporary permission to stay, and then have the opportunity to turn that into work permission or asylum status. Very few of them apply for asylum because they’re okay with temporary permission and labor status. For a long while, we’ve underestimated the problem.

As did the rest of Europe.
Petrovic: Yes, for sure. But compared with other countries on the southern border such as Malta and Greece, Italy is a strange case.
I’ll tell you a personal story. When I was an adviser to the department of migration ten years ago, there was a possibility of reallocation proceedings within the European Refugee Fund. I asked them ten years ago, why shouldn’t we propose sending people from Italy elsewhere? They said that we’re Italy, a small country, sixty million people, how can we let the EU take some of our refugees? And now we’re asking for this.
The EU has given numerous rules on this issue, but its policy cannot be improved because one rule is more important than the others – the Dublin rule. All the other successes that have been achieved, the steps toward standardization, have not benefited us that much because the Dublin rule is more important than any other.

But how do you propose we skip Dublin and alleviate the situation for countries such as Italy?
Knaus: It all seems very complicated, but it’s actually very simple. In theory, everyone should apply for asylum when they cross the border. But in practice, for more than twenty years, it has never worked. Just last year, Germany requested tens of thousands of people be sent to other countries because it’s not a border country, so of course they entered from elsewhere, and Germany ended up sending 4,000 people over 2016 to other EU member states. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers, in comparison, have remained in Germany with their status unknown. It makes no sense. Germany only sent 4,000 people to other countries, but it received 20,000 from Sweden and other countries. So Germany didn’t benefit at all. But Italy didn’t benefit or pay a cost either. Italy received 2,000 people over the last year, and it also sent 2,000 people to other countries. So the net is zero.
But these are real people waiting. Civil servants are creating files. We have this bureaucratic monster which serves no purpose at all. So here is the problem. The governments cannot get up and say to the public that our system never worked, we could not afford it, we do nothing. We need to do something.
This is why I think the only way to get a system to work is to be honest. We do not know how to move around such large numbers of people between Italy and Switzerland, Sweden and Hungary, and between Europe and Nigeria. We need to minimize the movement of people as much as possible. The asylum application should be Europeanized. What Italy needs to do is to be able to present a proposal. What Italians need to say to the Germans, essentially, is that we want to have an asylum processing procedure in Italy as fast as the Dutch do. The Dutch resolved and closed cases in six weeks. And those cases have a high degree of quality because they have high quality legal aid, high quality translators, and decent country reports. Of course, Italians shouldn’t do this alone. So the ministers in Italy want this project in Sicily, agreements with Nigeria to take people back, European support for reception and asylum – and the vision is to replace Southern country borders with European borders. Relocation from there and return from there. It requires a lot of work, but it’s the only option – we need more Amsterdam in Sicily.
Today there is a debate about governance reform in Brussels. For the past two years it has been a complete disaster because nothing has been solved. And in the autumn, people will say the reform isn’t working and we are helpless.

Do you see a few countries taking the lead, or is it more of an EU cooperation?
Knaus: One thing is clear: The Turkey deal would never have come through if it had waited for the EU 28. It was essentially a coalition of the willing that consisted of two countries: the Netherlands and Germany. Now we need a few more countries: Italy, Germany, Sweden, and perhaps France – this crew, if they can negotiate together with Nigeria, if they can present this plan together of replacing Dublin. Germany make take the lead – but Italy still has to propose it.