In a bold statement before the European Parliament, the EU Commission’s new President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed that European core values must also be respected when it comes to asylum policy. His words are remarkable in light of the embarrassing performance that Europe has shown on this issue so far. The lack of a coherent refugee policy is dramatically reflected in over 20,000 deaths at the EU’s external borders since the early 1990s, as well as in the living conditions of some 1.5 million displaced people who have sought asylum in the EU over the past five years. The result is not only a humanitarian but also an economic disaster.
From now on, the newly established EU migration commissioner will be in charge of refugee policy, which was previously divided between five different DGs. While new heads, consolidated responsibilities and strong speeches do not necessarily indicate a genuine change in policy, now is the chance to finally establish a European migration strategy that is no longer based on defense and national self-interest, but on the principle of shared responsibility.
According to the UNHCR, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has exceeded 50 million – and is expected to rise further. Many of those who come from countries bordering the Mediterranean are bound for Europe.
We certainly cannot absorb all of them. But to meet this challenge, the EU needs a fundamentally new way of thinking. The current practice has neither kept people from embarking on a dangerous journey towards Europe, nor has it achieved a fair and appropriate distribution of refugees within the Union.
The first step must be to agree on a transparent quota system guaranteeing a balanced distribution of asylum-seekers across EU member countries. Countries like Sweden and Germany have accepted above-average numbers of asylum applications over the past years, while France and the UK have been rather reluctant. The definition of a “fair share” must account for the economic strength of each country.
Another aspect is becoming increasingly important: Many of those who come to us for humanitarian reasons are endowed with valuable “human capital”. They have good skills and professional qualifications, and – as Germany’s President Joachim Gauck put it – they are “highly mobile, flexible, multilingual, motivated and willing to take risks.” But until recently, they have been effectively barred from seeking employment. In line with what IZA experts have long demanded, Germany has now eased the restrictions on labor market access for refugees. This gives them a chance to earn their own living, to develop their professional skills further, and to achieve social integration. The next logical step is to allow qualified refugees to enter into the regular immigration process.
The new EU Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, is well advised to further develop the EU Blue Card Directive along these lines. After all, his declared goal is to “help Europe address skills shortages and attract the talents it needs.”
In tandem with these initiatives, we also need development partnerships for the labor markets of the sending regions in order to create medium-term prospects for refugees in their home countries. We should not forget that many of them wish to go back home someday.
This op-ed will appear in the upcoming issue of IZA Compact.
For further reading on this topic see these IZA World of Labor articles:
- Circular migration (K.F. Zimmermann)
- Using a point system for selecting immigrants (M. Tani)
- The welfare magnet hypothesis and the welfare take-up of migrants (C. Giulietti)
- Skill-based immigration, economic integration, and economic performance (A. Aydemir)