Henna Virkkunen, The Refugee Crisis from a Brussels Perspective in:

Wolfram Hilz, Daniele Saracino (ed.)

Nordic Perspectives on the European Asylum System, page 33 - 38

The cases of Sweden and Finland

1. Edition 2017, ISBN print: 978-3-8288-3998-4, ISBN online: 978-3-8288-6738-3, https://doi.org/10.5771/9783828867383-33

Series: Bonner Studien zum globalen Wandel, vol. 23

Tectum, Baden-Baden
Bibliographic information
33 3 The Refugee Crisis from a Brussels Perspective Henna Virkkunen It is estimated that at least 65 million people are displaced in the world at the moment. They are refugees, asylum seekers, migrants or internally displaced persons. In 2015, over 1 million people made their way to the EU. It has been estimated that during that year at least 3.771 persons died in the Mediterranean. In 2016, the numbers have shown a decreasing trend. By October 2016, 229.963 people have reached Europe according to UNHCR. According to estimates, 2.888 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing at sea in 2016 alone. It is also helpful to remember that 85% of the world´s refugees are hosted by developing countries. Nonetheless, the refugee crisis has had considerable impact in the EU as well. In fact, citizens in the EU see immigration as one of the top challenges currently facing the EU. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, with 34% of the citizens describing it as the top challenge, immigration is now way ahead of the economic recovery, that being at 12.5%. Managing the refugee crisis and migration in general should be a shared responsibility. It concerns not only the EU Member States but also the transit countries and countries of origin. Managing migration is a challenge, which needs to be taken seriously. Providing protection and fully integrating the refugees is the way forward. It is vital to understand that the challenge requires a global response. 1 The EU’s approach The EU has been criticized for not managing the refugee crisis well enough. However, regardless of its slow and often late decision-making, the EU has managed to react to the crisis and has in fact taken a comprehensive approach to manage it. The actual problem has been the lack of implementation in the Member States. The EU has taken a comprehensive approach to manage the refugee crisis both in Europe as well as in its neighbouring countries. The Commission’s communication ‘European Agenda for Migration’ was a prompt reaction to the refugee crisis in May 2016 drawing on the various existing tools available in the EU. Financial assistance has been an important aspect in managing the refugee crisis. Overall, the EU has allocated more than 10 billion euros of its budget for the 34 years 2015-2016 to address the ongoing crisis within the EU and in its neighbouring countries. In April 2016, the Commission presented a strategic vision on how its external action can support displaced people in crises. The Commission’s humanitarian and civil protection department is supporting both refugees and their hosting communities in several ways. First, providing emergency support within the EU. In 2016, the Commission announced an initial 83 million euros of humanitarian funding for emergency support projects in Greece. These projects are expected to address the humanitarian needs of approximately 50.000 refugees currently hosted in the country. Second, helping transit countries with humanitarian funding. In 2015, the Commission launched the Refugee Facility for Turkey worth 3 billion euros. In total, over 240 million worth of projects have already been released to address the crisis. The Commission has also provided humanitarian aid to the Western Balkans to support refugees along the route. Third, the Commission has put the EU Civil Protection Mechanism in place in Member States as well as in neighbouring countries. Several countries have received material assistance through this mechanism. These materials include blankets, tents, beds and other essentials. Fourth, the Commission has increased its humanitarian aid for crises by 200 million euros for 2015 and 300 million euros for 2016 for instance through the UN Refugee Agency and Red Cross. In June 2016, the EU Regional Trust Fund launched new projects worth more than 200 million euros to support hosting communities in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. 2 Migration policies Although there are many different EU instruments to deal with migration, there is no comprehensive migration policy. Member States still have their own legal frameworks for labour immigration and varying sets of rules for family reunification. Each Member State also deals with integration differently. It can be said that there are 28 different approaches to manage the refugee crisis. Some Member States have even refused to share the burden of the high immigration. With the increasing number of incoming refugees, the EU’s migration policies need to be based on solidarity towards those needing international protection as well as attracting a skilled work force for Europe. The EU’s Agenda on Migration is targeting to combine both, the internal and external policies. Reducing the incentives for irregular migration has been a priority for the EU for a long time. The focus has been on addressing the root causes of migration 35 in the countries of origin, preventing smuggling and trafficking of people and streamlining the return policies. Saving lives and securing external borders have been top priorities for the EU in 2016. The EU has done so by strengthening the role of Europol, increasing the funding for Frontex and launching new Common Security and Defence Policy operations in the Mediterranean in order to dismantle criminal networks. In November 2015, EU and African leaders agreed to work together to address the root causes of the refugee crisis. Simultaneously the EU established the EU Trust Fund for Africa worth 1.8 billion euros. Later, 500 million have been added to the fund. As southern EU Member States like Italy and Greece have faced bigger pressures by receiving most of the refugees, burden sharing has also been an important topic. In July 2015, the Commission presented the idea of a relocation scheme and hotspots for Italy and Greece. The idea aims at allowing Frontex, Europol and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) to work in Greece and Italy to help these countries with the registration processes and under the relocation scheme, the Member States are supposed to relocate 160.000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Unfortunately, the implementation of the scheme has been problematic. In March 2016, the EU-Turkey agreement was created to end irregular migration to the EU through Turkey and to create legal channels instead. The latest development from the EU’s side has been the new Partnership Framework presented in June 2016. It aims to tackle the root causes of migration by strengthening co-operation with the hosting, transit and origin countries. The plan is to strengthen human rights and the rule of law and increase financial and operational support in these countries. However, the EU- Turkey deal has been widely criticized. Certainly, the EU cannot ignore the human rights situation in Turkey and it is important to monitor closely the implementation of the agreement. In autumn 2016, the Commission has made a proposal for a new investment fund in order to mobilise investments in third countries. The Commission aims to mobilise 3.1 billion euros to the fund and predicts investments of up to 31 billion and the potential to increase to 62 billion if Member States contribute. This highlights the importance of solidarity. Each Member State is needed to contribute and take part in these plans and schemes. To conclude, the EU’s focus has been on addressing the root causes behind irregular migration, dismantling smuggling operators and trafficking networks, streamlining the return policies and creating legal routes instead, securing the 36 external borders and saving lives at sea. Yet many policies have not been fully implemented in the Member States. 3 Lack of implementation As we know, the biggest obstacle we have had is the lack of common will, which has led to poor implementation of all the above-mentioned plans, frameworks and programs. There has indeed been a huge divide in Europe regarding the question of how to handle the challenge politically. The implementation of all the proposed measures has been extremely weak in many Member States. For example, the actual state of play of the proposed relocation of 160.000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy as of June 14, 2016 is that in total 2.280 people have been relocated since the launch of the scheme. Finland alone has been contributing by relocating 14.4% of those 2.280 persons. Many other countries have not participated at all. Yet it is clear that only by joint solutions the EU can solve the crisis. 4 The way forward The refugee crisis in the EU will not ease without peace and stability in the neighbouring areas – that is for sure. Therefore, joint action is needed. The EU and its Member States should do everything in their power to end the violent conflicts in the neighbouring countries that are the principal causes of the crisis. Investing in the peace processes in the conflict zones is the key. The EU’s Neighbourhood Policy should focus more on the stabilisation of these areas by improving the living conditions as well as economic opportunities. Further, it is important to control the EU’s external borders and ensure that refugees fleeing war and persecution can enter the EU via legal routes. Member States need financial support to control the borders of the Schengen area. Controlling the EU’s external borders is essential to preserve open internal borders and a fully working Schengen system. Another very important point is that we create possibilities for refugees to stay as close to their countries of origin as possible. We need to improve humanitarian reception capacities in the neighbouring countries of the conflict zones. Many refugees are willing to return to their homes as soon as it is safe again. It is important that they do not need to continue their often dangerous journey from country to country only because of unbearable conditions in the neighbouring states. Creating legal routes is also important. We should do everything we can to prevent people from taking these dangerous journeys in which they are risking 37 their lives. The EU will support the establishment of an UN-led global resettlement scheme to ensure the fair distribution of refugees. 5 The importance of migration for Europe It is also good to keep in mind that migration is, above all, an opportunity for Europe. Europe needs immigration. The continent is facing a huge demographic challenge in the near future. Europe is aging faster than any other region in the world. Our working-age population is declining, while the number of pensioners that European workers need to support is rising. Therefore, Europe should provide opportunities for those fleeing wars as well as for the talented workers, students and researchers. Thus, new policy on legal migration is very much needed. Such new policy needs to focus on attracting workers that the EU economy needs, for example by facilitating the recognition of qualifications. The EU Blue Card Scheme has not been used by the Member States as much as planned. As a response to this, the Commission launched a new proposal which updates the existing rules of the scheme and aims to improve the EU’s ability to attract people with the needed skills. With the new proposal, the Blue Card holders would have quicker access to the labour market and to long-term residence status. It also aims at lowering the salary thresholds in the Member States. In addition, according to the proposal, highly skilled beneficiaries of international protection will be able to apply for a Blue Card. 6 The importance of integration Finally yet importantly, I would like to emphasise the importance of integration. The Commission has introduced an EU Action Plan on Integration in June 2016. The Action Plan helps the Member States to strengthen their integration policies by providing a common framework. This is important as Member States are at the forefront when it comes to integration. The Action Plan sets out the concrete policy, operational and financial support for the Member States. The plan focuses on the key areas such as education and vocational training, employment, access to basic services as well as active participation and social inclusion. Education plays a vital role in successful integration. Member States should streamline their processes for recognition of professional skills and qualifications and facilitate the access to the labour market at a very early stage. The distribution of refugees across municipalities and regions should also be fair. We need a dialogue between refugees and hosting societies.

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The Nordic EU Member States are generally considered to have common perspectives and interests regarding European integration. A differentiated look reveals, though, that fundamental differences in the respective agendas towards certain policy fields exist. The increasing number of refugees seeking protection within European borders in the last years has unveiled a major divergence of interests particularly between Sweden and Finland regarding the common European asylum policy: Sweden has within a few years turned into one of the continent’s top destinations for asylum seekers, whereas Finland has characterized itself as one of Europe’s most restrictive asylum and migration management regimes. The openly stated differences of these two countries, both in terms of actual numbers and implemented national policy guidelines, are representative for the opposing political forces emerging within the European Union in shaping the common asylum policy. Due to the increasing internal and external pressure on the EU in managing the refugee crisis, this issue has not only gained significant importance and emphasis on a national level, but also from a European point of view.

This volume differentiates the Nordic perspectives on shaping EU asylum policies by focusing on the two contrasting country case studies of Sweden and Finland. Why have these neighbouring countries, characterized by similar economic and social welfare systems, chosen such different approaches in facing the challenges arising from the refugee crisis and in implementing asylum policies? For both countries, questions for the interests of key actors dominating the national debates on asylum policy are prevalent. The respective agendas of Sweden and Finland, their different political approaches and problems inside their respective societies as well as the national strategies at the European level in shaping the Common European Asylum System in light of the refugee crisis are in the focus of the contributions.