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Feb 26, 2016

Strong Borders, No Quotas: Putting European Interests First in the Migration Crisis

The situation in numbers: Between January and October 2015, 1.2 million migrants crossed a European border illegally and more than 391 thousand travelled via the western Balkans route, passing through Hungary. Despite the cold winter, an average of one thousand people are still arriving to Europe every day. Most of them do not have any proper documentation.

 When the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán first called Europe’s attention to the increasing numbers and the potential problems, many ignored the warnings and accused Hungary of populism and of stirring up controversy. The numbers, however, were depicting in detail the story of a dramatically rising wave of human migration. In 2012, the number of migrants illegally crossing the border through Hungary was around 2,000, similar to prior years. In 2013, the number grew to 18 thousand. In 2014, it grew to 41 thousand before exceeding, in 2015, 391 thousand. As a country on the external border of Schengen, Hungary was among the first to feel the full impact.

What’s the real issue?

The core challenge in this issue is not necessarily the high number, nor the dramatic growth. The problem is that the migration influx remains uncontrolled, unmanaged and largely illegal. This uncontrolled, illegal immigration threatens the stability and identity of the nations of Europe and the European Union, poses security threats and raises criminal activity within the EU, and puts a huge burden on the social systems and thus the economies of the EU. Not least, it seriously threatens one of the greatest achievements of the European Union: the freedom of borderless travel within the 26 countries of Europe’s Schengen Area.

The way the migration crisis has unfolded also poses a problem for the bona fide refugees, those truly in need. By allowing entry to hundreds of thousands without any documentation or screening, many of them young, single men in their twenties, European countries now struggle to manage the asylum applications of those who are really in need and in danger: families, including women and children, elderly, members of religious and ethnic minorities. The system’s failure also inadvertently supports the criminal business of human traffickers.

The migration remains uncontrolled and unmanaged in part because the vast majority of the migrants are not cooperating with the national authorities or refuse to follow the laws and regulations of the countries where they first arrive. Yet that is what the laws of Europe require, that a refugee should request asylum in the first, safe country reached and should await proper review of his or her claim. Many are misinformed or not aware of these rules and some recipient countries lack the will to enforce them.

How can it be solved?

Prime Minister Orbán proposed a six-point plan in September 2015 at the meeting of the European Council. The list had three especially important priorities: The first one is to set up a common border protection system for countries like Greece, which are on the frontier of the EU but doing little to protect the borders. Secondly, provide backing to countries outside the EU, but on the migrant routes, to help manage the migration crisis on the frontlines. Thirdly, clearly define which countries are safe for refugees and designate EU candidate countries as safe countries. All priorities aim to better control the situation and manage asylum requests outside the borders. Without efficient border protection, we are giving up our own freedom. 

Furthermore, the freedom of travel within Schengen cannot be protected from inside the Schengen Area but must be protected at the external borders and beyond. 

Once the situation is under control, the EU could proactively take in refugees who are in need, instead of abetting human traffickers by continuing to hold out the prospect of entry.

By building a fence on the southern border and enforcing transit zones for registration, Hungary has proven that if a member state is willing to enforce the common rules, it can, and the measures are effective. 

What will not solve the problem?

Continued denial of an open discussion and enforcing the mandatory quota system idea will not solve the problem. 

Early in 2016, the response of some European countries, realizing the gravity of the problem, began to shift. The government of Austria, once critical of Hungary’s actions, put up a fence along its border with Slovenia, an internal Schengen border, Chancellor Werner Faymann saying that “if the EU does not manage to secure the external borders, Schengen as a whole is put into question.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in an interview with the BBC, said that “if Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders, it’s the very idea of Europe that will be questioned.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also struck a different tone: “We need to protect our external borders because we want to keep Schengen.”

The debate continues, however, as many continue to insist on resettling migrants and accepting quotas. The proposed mandatory quota system has no democratic mandate and in many cases is being imposed against the will of the member states and their voters. It would relocate migrants to member states where the migrants themselves do not want to go and – because the voters or the elected leaders have not had a say – where they are not necessarily welcome.  Instead, the quota system will likely intensify problems. That’s why Hungary, along with other member states, has turned to the European Court to overturn the mandatory quota system.

The legal background

Some of the migrants arriving to Europe are genuine refugees with sound claims for asylum. Many, however, are not – by law – refugees. Many come from safe countries in search of a better quality of life. As recent events have shown, some, even if a small minority, subscribe to radical Islam and pose a real security threat.

The Dublin Regulation, under the umbrella of the Geneva Convention, provides the effective legal framework setting the rules for asylum requests in the European Union or the Schengen Area. It says that if a migrant requests asylum, he or she has to be registered in the first EU or Schengen country on his or her path. Once the registration process, which includes taking fingerprints, is complete, he or she has to request asylum from that country and his or her asylum request must be evaluated in that country. 

This is the procedure that the vast majority of the migrants refuse to follow because they want to have their asylum requests ruled on in a wealthier member state of their choice, despite the fact that the rules strictly prohibit that. The Geneva Convention, which defines refugee status and asylum protocol for all UN members, does not give the migrant or refugee the option to choose where to submit the asylum request.