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Asylum policy is too important to be left to interior ministers

by Heather Grabbe

Jean Monnet Fellow, RSCAS


2 October 2015

Every epistemic community has its own way of framing issues, and policy-makers are no exception. Interior ministers are particularly susceptible to security frames, as their job is to look out for threats to their home population. The responsibility for policing, prisons, law and order tends to attract politicians who want to make their careers on the right of their party, on themes of control and toughness. How unfortunate it is for the vulnerable people who seek asylum that the politicians usually in charge of protecting them have a tendency to portray them as a threat rather than a moral responsibility under international law.

The pictures of the refugees in the press this summer reinforced this framing of refugees as a security threat: people who are so desperate that they fight their way across thousands of kilometres of desert and open ocean to reach Europe, and then through razor wire at borders. Many European citizens defied the reaction of their politicians to these images, and voluntarily donated clothes, food, money and time to helping the refugees when their states failed to do so. One of hopeful signs from the crisis is that it showed that the humanitarian instinct among ordinary citizens on our continent is still strong.

But in the rhetoric of some politicians, the desperation of the would-be migrants was portrayed as frightening rather than heroic: these super-humans are willing to do anything to get to Europe, so what might they do if they reach our cities? No wonder that the Justice and Home Affairs Council, at which the 28 EU interior ministers meet, refused to countenance the Commission proposal for redistribution of asylum-seekers earlier this year.

But then an extraordinary change happened this summer. The crisis became so great that it was taken out of the hands of the interior ministers by the heads of state and government, who are now routinely deciding on the most important questions in the European Council. With Chancellor Merkel in the lead, they agreed on a more generous approach, which forced the interior ministers last week to expand the number of resettlement places.

What are the longer term implications? The greater generosity of the European Council is more the result of Merkel’s strong moral statements about welcoming the refugees, which few others dared to contest, than a natural tendency of prime ministers and presidents. Several of them made their careers through the interior ministry, Manuel Valls of France being a prime example. But an optimistic interpretation is that the European Council brings out statesmanship in many politicians when they do not want to appear on the wrong side of history. Let’s hope that their instructions to the interior ministers hold for long enough to allow implementation of the new resettlement agreement.

What would be even more encouraging is if the European Council also gave other political actors more of a say in asylum policy. After all, people who gain refugee status settle in our societies, so employment and social affairs ministers should be involved in ensuring they get support in learning languages and social integration much earlier than usually happens. Education, health and other public services are also needed. And today’s refugees are the entrepreneurs and workers of the future, so economy ministers should have a say too. These ministers should also be involved in making asylum policy, so that it is seen in the round; not as a security issue just for the interior ministry but as a moral responsibility of the whole state.



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