Interview with Kris Pollet, Senior Legal and Policy Officer at ECRE
Despite the current crisis, the Belgian reception systemfor asylum seekers is probably one of the best in the European Union.
This leads some people to assume that Belgium is "too generous" in comparison to other countries, and that such generosity could be a pullfactor. According to Kris Pollet, the real situation is not that simple:
“As long as there are such large disparities among the various asylum and reception systems, asylum seekers are right to try their luck in a specific country”.Is this the European Union's fault? No! Member States who don't play by the rules and start grumbling at the very mention of solidarity regarding migration and asylum are to blame.
Q: When we take a close look at the number of asylum applications in Europe, can we say that this number has “spectacularly” increased in Belgium?
A: Eurostat recently published figures for 2010, which demonstrates that the reported “spectacular increase of asylum claims in Europe” is not the case. 260,000 persons claimed asylum in Europe, and approximately one-tenth of those claims were registered in Belgium. At the European level, this figure is stable compared to 2009, even slightly decreasing (-5%). However, we can see an increase of asylum applications in some countries, such as Belgium (+16%), Germany (+49%), Sweden (+32%) and Denmark (+30%).
Q: If we compare the number of asylum claims to States' population, where does Belgium stand?
A: Belgium is the fourth country in terms of asylum applications, after France, Germany and Sweden. Some people claim that it is due to Belgium's high standards regarding reception of asylum seekers. Given the sensitivity of this issue, it is important to be cautious when launching such theories. There are several elements to consider and, in reality, it is difficult to prove whether this is true or not. It is a multidimensional issue where too much is at stake to determine which factor makes the difference.
Q: What are the factors to consider?
A: Beyond the quality of the reception system and asylum procedures, factors such as the country's geographic location and reputation, the links that smugglers have with it, the migratory routes, or the (often inaccurate) information conveyed by the diaspora and/or traffickers must be taken into consideration. There is also the question of visa waivers, as we have witnessed recently in Belgium with the arrival of more Serbian and Macedonian citizens. On this point, it is interesting to see despite the fact that visas have also been lifted for Albanian citizens, there hasn't been an increase in the number of arrivals.
Q: Does the fact that asylum seekers are accommodated in hotels and have the possibility to receive per diem play a role?
A: It's possible, but we must be cautious when we making such statements. I doubt that the prospect of being accommodated in a hotel and receiving per diem has such a large impact, but it might have influenced some.
Q: Do you think there is now a concept of “reception shopping”, i.e. the idea that people seek asylum in countries that offer better conditions during the treatment of their applications?
A: This is common sense: people would always prefer to go to a State where they think their protection needs will be addressed correctly and where reception conditions are acceptable than risk facing the opposite scenario. It is for this precise reason that asylum seekers avoid countries where reception conditions are non-existent like Greece for instance. It's logical. And as long as the various European asylums remain unharmonised, this will continue.
Q: It is clear that disparities between the different European systems persist, despite the push for a common system. Why has the Reception Conditions Directive failed to lead to European harmonisation?
A: The “Reception Conditions” Directive suffers from two problems. The first one is that it is not a very ambitious text, which means that it is not too complicated for a Member State to respect the standards laid out in the directive. The second problem is that this directive leaves too much breathing space to Member States and that many provisions in the Directive are subject to exceptions. In the current debate on the evaluation of the directive, it is necessary for the Commission to introduce provisions to limit the room to manoeuvre of States and the use of exception measures.
But here again, the debate is stuck, as with the creation of a Common European Asylum System.
The signals are clear: the vast majority of Member States don't want such a common system, while the European Parliament is pushing to create such a system. If the Council wants, it can drag out the discussions for years. The creation of a Common European Asylum System is essential. Without it, the whole system risks collapsing.
Q: Do you think the Common European Asylum System will reach its 2012 target?
A: We are far from it and to the point that I think that this deadline has almost become counter-productive. The European Commission and the European Parliament may try to force a compromise, and in that case the
risk is that we end up with low European asylum standards, where the final European provisions wouldn't be much different from the current ones. This could raise serious questions for the future. It is wiser to take the time necessary and reach an ambitious agreement on each Directive, rather than having hurried texts.
Q: The whole asylum and reception system relies on solidarity between Member States. Why are they not cooperating?
A: Solidarity is indeed the principle on which the whole scheme is based. Without solidarity between States, the system is not viable. Unfortunately, I have doubts about the solidarity between Member States. At the European level, there is no political will to create real solidarity. Without it, however, the idea of a common asylum policy cannot function properly. The biggest issue is the lack of trust: each State has the impression that the others are not playing their part.
Q: What are your views on the Belgian reception system (besides the current crisis)?
A: If you exclude the current crisis, the Belgian system is, in theory, one of the best in Europe. I recently went to Malta, where the reception system is completely different. The reception centres are completely overcrowded. I even met people that have developed severe psychological illnesses due to the system. It's really is quite disturbing.
Q: What do you say to those who say that the current crisis is due to the fact that the Belgian reception system is too generous?
A: The problem is not that the Belgian reception system is too good, but rather that it is inefficient in other European States. We should start by changing that. If harmonising policies regarding reception means revising the quality of the systems downwards, then this is not the way to go! It hasn't been the case until now, but if the discrepancies between States remain, it could happen. If this becomes the objective, then we say “no, thank you”.
Q: Isn't that exactly what might happen considering the evolution of the European context?
A: Yes, it is a risk, but we have to ask ourselves if it is realistic. I don't think so. From the perspective of someone who seeks international protection, risks differ largely depending on which doors one knocks. And as long as this situation persists, the whole system that is challenged. We are in a crucial period. I am not convinced that all Member States want to establish this common asylum policy. Perhaps, they all want it, but we must continue to monitor the discussions closely, because they could result in lowering standards of the current asylum systems. Before pushing for harmonisation, we must be sure that the objective is the same for all. If we don't succeed, then the whole system must be questioned. On this point, the European Court of Human Rights has questioned one of the so-called “cornerstones” of the European asylum system in its judgement “M.S.S. v. Belgium and Greece” from 21 January 2011: the Dublin Regulation. The Court considered that the transfer of an asylum seeker from a State to another might result in inhumane and degrading treatment of the asylum seekers if the reception conditions in the transfer country - Greece in this case - are inadequate.
This interview was conducted in French by CIRÉ and published in the Migrations Magazine (n°4, Spring 2011). The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is a network of 70 refugee-assisting organisations in 30 European countries, working together to protect and respect refugees.