Geflüchtete beim Versuch die griechisch-nordmazedonische Grenze auf der Balkanroute zu überqueren.
Geflüchtete beim Versuch die griechisch-nordmazedonische Grenze auf der Balkanroute zu überqueren.IMAGO / NurPhoto

Thirty Years of Struggle for a Humane Asylum Policy

Cornelia Ernst

MEP Cornelia Ernst looks back on her time fighting for refugee rights in Europe

During the summer slump, and 30 years after the right of asylum was restricted in the German constitution, Thorsten Frei, an MP for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), could think of nothing better than suggesting that this fundamental human right be struck from Germany’s Basic Law altogether. Get rid of the right to asylum, replace it with a quota solution (with absolutely no basis in either human rights or constitutional law), he suggested.

Eliminating this fundamental right would be a clarion call for the delegitimization of all of the reasons people seek asylum, and further destabilize our plural society. Quite apart from this, however, the majority necessary to do so exists neither in the German parliament nor in German society at large. This was a smokescreen thrown up by Thorsten Frei in order to push the CDU further to the right. He thereby unwittingly gave the traffic light coalition an opportunity to present themselves as upholders of justice — which they absolutely are not.

As important as such a fundamental right is, its removal from the German Basic Law would hardly abolish it. What everyone involved is sweeping under the table is the fact that asylum policy gets decided at the European level. Even EU member states whose constitutions do not include the right of asylum have to implement Article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which aligns with the 1951 Refugee Convention. All national regulations are therefore based on European rules. A good example is the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), which now serves as the legal basis for the EU’s reception of Ukrainian war refugees. Only if the right of asylum gets overturned at the European level will it actually be gone.

This brings us straight to the European Council’s asylum compromise. With the support of the SPD, FDP, and the Greens, this compromise is far more potent than any smokescreen of Frei’s — it could actually overturn the individual right of asylum. It contains regulations that provide for the sorting out of refugees at the borders, and imposes no obligation on the member states to receive them. The Social Democrats (SPD), Liberals (FDP), and Greens who thundered valiantly against Frei and Merz this summer were the same ones who, as European deputies, voted a miserable resolution on asylum through the Parliament. And it was precisely their parties that made sure the European Council reached this so-called compromise on asylum — which does not even contain a “quota solution”, by the way. The truth hurts: neither the CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, nor the Greens are defending the individual right of asylum. That is the tragedy.

The So-Called Asylum-Seeker Compromise

In 1992, war refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina — where up to 100,000 lives were lost by 1995 — reached Dresden, my home town. I was on the staff of the Party of Democratic Socialism’s parliamentary group in Saxony at the time, and when the refugees were arriving I stood at the main train station beside Heiner Sandig, CDU politician and its immigration commissioner. Visibly traumatized people were disembarking from the trains in almost complete silence. The moment burned itself into my brain.

We brought these people to Großröhrsdorf, to a former vacation resort. “This is war!”, said Heiner Sandig at the time. Later, we fought together to stop them being deported. Our struggle proved quixotic, at least in part: in 1993, the Bundestag, with the sense that refugee numbers from the former Yugoslavia were growing and with votes from the CDU/CSU, FDP, and SPD, resolved to radically curb the right of asylum and introduce the principle of so-called safe third countries and home countries. The scandalous justification was the need to prevent “abuse of asylum” (Asylmissbrauch).

Human rights are part of the founding treaties of the European Union and are in its DNA.

Since then, the right of asylum can be restricted by a simple legislative process. With this began the increasingly opaque practice of altering the German legislation on asylum, with refugee rights disappearing ever further into the thickets of bureaucracy. Only after the terrible Yugoslavian war was over were the correct lessons drawn from the bloody conflict in form of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive in 2001. And yet — not one raped Bosnian woman ever benefited from this directive. It took 21 years until its first application for Ukrainian refugees.

In between were years of struggle. In 2009, I went up to the European Parliament, and before the year was over, I was travelling to Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. This was where Roma families from Germany were being deported to, because Kosovo was allegedly safe for them. I met families whose fathers had been working in car repair shops and for Bosch and whose children spoke not a word of Albanian.

These were the so-called voluntary returnees, “willing” to leave Germany for a few euro. They were practically stranded with no social support. I found communities living in Belgrade on the garbage dumps where their villages had been bulldozed to, behind a wall in Usti nad Labem, on the edge of town, as in Naples, or on Prager Straße in Dresden. This is how Europe takes care of its children.

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring began on 17 December 2010 with Mohamed Bouazizi’s suicide in Tunis. In almost all the Arab countries people rose against the regimes, a development that was welcomed across Europe. In Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, anti-government protests and violent repression by the state escalated. The West’s wrong-headed policies further aggravated these conflicts. Support was provided to Islamist fighters in Syria, whose only goal was to swap Assad’s power for their own. In Libya, a no-fly zone and military incursions intensified the civil war.

The unlawful US invasion of Iraq in 2003 did topple Saddam Hussein, but the disastrous military occupation ended up transferring power to Daesh (the Islamic State) — the Islamist strike force that became a launching pad for Islamist struggles throughout the Arab region and for terror attacks worldwide. Many people were hunted down, displaced, murdered. The dream of democracy sweeping the Arab world was over.

In January 2015, a few months after Mosul had fallen to Daesh, I was with my Social Democrat friend Joseph Weidenholzer in the contested Kurdish territories in Iraq. The Yazidis in particular were the targets of a Daesh genocide campaign — as if imitating the atrocities of the fascists, Daesh fighters were forcing Yazidi men to dig their own graves. Thousands of women were being enslaved and sold.

That any members of this religious minority survived at all was thanks to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters who had retreated to the Yazidis’ native region in the Sinjar Mountains. Thousands of Yazidis abandoned their villages; the refugee camps in Duhok were so awful that many risked the journey to Europe. As did those who had rebelled in other Arab states — women, children, men, whole families. They came on boats, and we found them on the so-called Balkan route.

Never Again?

The debate about the year 2015 is well-nigh cryptic. Migrants are alleged to have come to Europe in an uncontrolled tide, and abused European compassion — Merkel is to blame for it all because she allowed a migrant to take a selfie with her. The German media happily parrots this sort of nonsense.

In 2015, I was out with our parliamentary group along the entire Balkan route. We even stood at the Serbo-Croatian border, where every single person was registered and had their fingerprints taken. All necessary data were collected, buses chartered for the migrants’ onward travel north. In actuality, this took place at every border, and transferring the data would have been a trifling matter.

For many years, the Balkan route was the only safe path for many refugees. That problems arose was not due to the migrants, but to an egoistic, scandalous policy of border closures from Greece to Hungary and Austria, leaving thousands of refugees stranded in the most chaotic conditions. The EU had failed. It was not willing to offer these migrants a humane or dignified reception.

What Is Wrong with the EU?

Human rights are part of the founding treaties of the European Union and are so to speak in its DNA. The lesson from two world wars is that asylum should be granted to people in need. The EU and its member states have committed to the Geneva convention on refugees.

Nearly ten years ago, on 3 October 2013, a ship bound from the Libyan port city of Misrata sank off the coast of Lampedusa. 366 people died. The then-Migration Commissioner Cecilia Malmström broke down in tears at the sight of the children’s coffins.

After the shipwreck off Pylos that claimed 500 lives, Malmström’s current successor Ylva Johansson spoke of the need to reinforce border protection. The symbolism could not be starker. In the ten intervening years there has been a troubling brutalization of the way migration is handled, a callousness surpassed only by that of the radical Right, who would be willing to open fire on migrants.

The right of asylum has long since become a political plaything of the EU’s member states.

In 2016 the European Commission came up with an asylum package, consisting of five legislative proposals, each one worse than the last. In 2017, the European Parliament concluded its position on the package, clearly distancing itself on numerous points. A three-way negotiation with the Council never happened, because the latter did not manage to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament was completely reworking the Dublin IV regulations into a decent law on the reception of asylum seekers, which even the left-wing parliamentary group voted for in the plenary session. It was thanks to cooperation between the centre and the Left that the Parliament’s resolution included a catalogue of criteria as well as binding obligations on member states to receive migrants.

The Commission had already agreed on a dubious “migration agenda” in 2015, the aim of which was to hold refugees in dedicated centres — that is, prisons — in third countries and countries of transit, so that where possible nobody would even make it to European territory. Since then, the African belt especially has been almost obsessively sealed off, and millions in funds shovelled into the worst governing regimes. Libya, for instance, where torture and rape are the order of the day in the camps, has received some 60 million euro. In 2017, the German Foreign Office judged that the camps in Libya resembled concentration camps. Pope Francis described them as “hell”.

Alongside Libya, Niger became a key country for blocking migration. There, migrants are systematically herded into the Sahel zone — 13,000 are estimated to have died, although the total number remains unknown. Given the disastrous situation since the military coup, what will become of the people detained in Niger is totally unclear. Then came the migration agreement with Tunisia a few weeks ago, granting the Tunisian state 900 million euro for the “most efficient possible” blocking of the flow of refugees.

The European Commission’s dream settlement, however, is the EU–Turkey deal, struck on 18 March 2016 and which no parliament in the world voted on. Through to the end of 2018, six billion euro were handed over for concrete projects in the areas of basic services, health, and education for refugees in Turkey, according to the official statements, with no monitoring of the flow of funding, along with an additional 3 billion euro for border protection in particular through to the end of 2023. This despite the fact that since March 2020, due to the pandemic, the agreement has been nothing but a piece of paper.

We were in Turkey in May of 2016 and saw the prisons built with EU funds from the inside. In Edirne, I met an Afghani woman with two small children. She wanted to join her husband, who had worked as an interpreter for the German Army and sought asylum in Mainz. The German government refused to reunite the family. The woman was later murdered, and the children, to all appearances, sold.

Outsourcing asylum seeker policy — “externalization” — is one of the main goals of the Commission and the Council. Fortunately, this does not work in all areas. One of the Commission’s tricks consists of granting exclusive Frontex status agreements to Mauritania and Senegal, the first African states to be so blessed. The blocking of refugees is supposed to be made more effective with on-site help from the European border protection agency Frontex.

Progressive forces within and outside parliaments must work together if the right-wing populist and openly fascist currents devouring Europe are to be stopped.

Millions in funding are to flow into these two states for the purpose. In the case of Mauritania — an Islamic republic in which slavery is still a reality and the people live under an archaic caste system — this plan has a higher chance of success. Not in Senegal, however, which has adhered to the West African community (ECOWAS) agreement on free movement. At least that is how I understood talks in Dakar and Saint-Louis that I attended as rapporteur on the issue, and where there was overt rejection of the proposal.

Countries like Senegal have for centuries been part of circular migration, which belongs to people’s identity. There are entire departments of Senegal’s foreign ministry that do nothing but maintain contact with Senegalese abroad and provide assistance if necessary. This is worlds away from the EU’s current stance — quite apart from the fact that these young African states will rightly suspect neo-colonial practices if a border protection agency from the EU is able to act with impunity within their territory and obtains command over their borders.

As mentioned, both the Commission and the Council showed their true faces with the EU’s asylum agreement of 8 June 2023, which itself is based on the Commission’s 2020 proposals. Refugees are to undergo streamlined border procedures, which can involve checking whether they have links to a safe third country. This can mean the immediate termination of an asylum application, with no examination of individual grounds.

Refugees are to be detained during these procedures, including children from age 12. But even those not subjected to the border procedure have no guarantee of fair treatment because there are no binding intake quotas. A so-called solidarity mechanism permits member states to make funds for deportation or externalization available instead of receiving refugees. For countries like Poland and Hungary, even this is considered too expensive. They are staking everything on getting rid of refugees, to the extent possible, beyond Europe’s gates, by whatever means.

This is all happening while we humanely welcome 8 million Ukrainian refugees, a process to which we, the European Left, are also personally contributing. Why exactly people from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, or Eritrea should not be entitled to basic human dignity remains unclear. The right of asylum has long since become a political plaything of the EU’s member states. “Law and order” comes first, refugees last. They are being used as a buffer for policy failures around the world. They are guilty for simply existing.

What Are the Consequences?

What would actually happen if all member states legalized pushbacks, as Lithuania has done? It would mean militarization of the EU’s external borders, reintroduction of internal border controls, fences throughout the entire EU, ping-pong games with migrants, who would find safety nowhere. A different Europe.

In 2023, ten people died a day in the Mediterranean. Every ten days there is a maritime disaster that claims lives. The Commission looks on, but there are no consequences for failure to rescue at sea, no treaty violation procedures. Frontex is witness and accomplice to these events, refraining from intervention, flouting the EU ordinances that are supposed to regulate it. There are no consequences for Frontex.

Around the world, NGOs and countless activists are working for the cause of refugees.

Over the years as a Member of the European Parliament, I have visited dozens of hotspots around the world. In Jordan, where many Syrian refugees did not survive the desert crossing, and if they did, prayed daily in the camp at Zataari that their loved ones were still alive. We were in Sudan, where, with Italian and German help, border controls get enforced in the middle of the Libyan desert, where for centuries the seasons have dictated people’s migratory movements. Normal migratory routes are destroyed and corruption is permitted to grow, all with help from the EU.

In Melilla in Spain at the Moroccan border, we received no answer from those in charge when we inquired how 37 people had died while trying to cross in June 2022. We were in Croatia and Bosnia, where there are daily pushbacks and the Croatian border guards rob migrants, steal money and clothes, and grope young girls (as in the case of an Iranian girl). I saw the legs of migrants, Afghani soldiers, bitten by dogs, who could not understand why they, of all people — who had fought against the Taliban — were not being allowed to enter Europe. We saw the forests in eastern Poland, where dehydrated migrants struggled for their lives in the cold. We were in Italy and Greece again and again.

Greece has become a symbol for anti-immigrant politics in Europe. I saw an attempted pushback from Samos with my own eyes, and visited the Moria and Kara Tepe camps on Lesbos, where people were languishing in awful conditions. Most unbearable were the visits to police stations, where people are caged like animals until they are psychologically broken. I especially remember women who burst into tears when they faced us because they had no idea where to start explaining their situation. The worst punishment for migrants in Greece is to have their refugee status recognized, because this means being cut off from all social benefits after a few weeks. The streets of Athens are full of them along with undocumented migrants.

While all of this is going on, the Commission stands idly by. Europe is failing just where it is most needed.

There Is Always Hope

Around the world, NGOs and countless activists are working for the cause of refugees. In some countries they struggle alone against the trend of right-wing opinion and are completely without support. In the forests of Poland there are doctors who risk losing their medical licenses for providing help, and heroes like Grupa Granica who refuse to renounce their commitment in the face of threats. Doctors without Borders are active in all the hotspots, groups take to the high seas in order to rescue people. There are the fishing boat crews who cannot look on while migrant boats sink, ordinary people who help migrants and do not get a cent for it. They exist.

Here in Germany, too, there are many tirelessly committed activists. They are working everywhere: Sea-Watch, Mission Lifeline — and there are the Seebrücke safe havens, which many municipalities have avowed themselves to be. They represent the conscience of this world, for whom the words humanity and solidarity still mean something.

Our task as parliamentarians is to be their allies, defend them, and never cease fighting for a life of dignity. Progressive forces within and outside parliaments, despite their differences, must work together if the right-wing populist and openly fascist currents devouring Europe are to be stopped.

Otherwise, the EU will crumble. Everything is at stake.

Cornelia Ernst has served as a Member of the European Parliament for Die Linke since 2009.

Translated by Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.