The morning after the White House dropped Trump’s new travel ban, throwing refugee advocates into turmoil, Europe woke up on Monday to two realities regarding its own refugee and border policies: Germany’s parliamentary elections unexpectedly boosted the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, and European Union migration authorities report that the EU has failed disastrously to meet the original 2015 target for relocating Middle East refugees seeking asylum. After member states were allocated a limited number of relocation “slots” to distribute tens of thousands of asylum seekers across the continent, the majority remain trapped in a lengthy slog through the legal process for asylum. Fewer than a third of the relocation quota—the initial step toward eventual long-term resettlement—has been met so far. That 70 percent remain attests to rising anti-immigrant fears and their real-life consequences at the border.
Announcing the latest figures, Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office stated, “Most EU member states have fundamentally failed refugees and asylum-seekers, shirking their responsibilities and leaving thousands abandoned in Italy and Greece.”
The target was arguably irresponsible to begin with—far too narrow to really dent the larger refugee crisis. The overall number agreed upon in 2015 was 54,000 asylum seekers in the process of long-term resettlement in Europe, their last chance of escaping conflict and devastation in their home countries. In response to the peak of the refugee influx of 2015, the 54,000 quota was an arbitrarily set “down payment” on a plan to redistribute about 160,000 people over two years—a stopgap measure to relieve increasingly desperate conditions mounting at the Turkish-Greece border. Many other migrants were subsequently shipped from the border zone to camps across the Turkish border.
The distribution of the number of refugees a country would be required to take in under the 2015 agreement, based on the host country’s size and estimated capacity to accept new residents, ranged from fewer than 200 in the smallest countries to tens of thousands for Germany, which had set a high bar initially, agreeing to absorb roughly one million refugees. Meanwhile, the volume of humanitarian need continues to rise, even as political fatigue with the refugee “problem” deepens. McGowan adds that the current queue for relocation has been frozen since last year, meaning that, given the new arrivals, “There are thousands of others who are still awaiting relocation in Greece and Italy, who are waiting to be relocated, or waiting for their claims to be processed…. This is playing politics with people’s lives.”
But the media spotlight has drifted on over time, and any sympathy that first greeted the refugees has since been overshadowed by xenophobia and panic. One year after the 2015 target was set, the EU Parliament, a body of representatives that parallels the European Commission (EC), upended the plan by approving a non-binding resolution, raised by Slovakia and Hungary, citing national-sovereignty issues. In a sign of both the strength and weakness of EU institutions as a moral compass for the continent, the European Court of Justice struck down their rejection of the quotas. Yet the vote does not have the force of law, anyway, and the reality is that the law is already being flouted by political inertia. As of September 20, the vast majority of EU member states have failed to fulfill tens of thousands of “slots” for relocations, ranging from a gap of 48 for tiny Ireland and 15,300 for France. Even the supposedly generous Germany has well over 19,400 slots still to be filled. Of all EU member states, only the tiny island of Malta has met its commitment, relocating 131 people.