A better international refugee system?

By Frode Forfang, Director General of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration

(This blog post was first published in Norwegian on 4 January 2016)

Sweden’s dramatic shift in asylum policy can for many be seen as an example of idealism facing reality. But it is also an illustration of something more. It showcases an international refugee regime which is not able to handle the current migration crisis. The right to seek asylum has been a cornerstone of this regime. In principle there is no upper limit as to how many people can access this right in any given country. In reality we see that at some point a limit is reached.

After working several years in this field, I have some thoughts on the international system for dealing with refugees. It is easy to see the shortcomings, especially now. But are there alternatives to the current system that could work better?

If the international community, based on European values, was going to construct a new asylum and refugee regime from scratch today, there is reason to believe that much would have turned out differently. This is also, or perhaps especially, the case if the interests of the world’s refugees were the main consideration.

A paradox

The current system is based on a major paradox. On the one hand we have the right to seek asylum as a fundamental part of the system. With this right it also follows a comprehensive set of human rights, including access to legal procedures. At the same time countries that have joined this system, EU countries and Norway included, do their utmost to prevent refugees from having the opportunity to exercise this right, for example through border controls and a strict visa regime. It is practically impossible for refugees to get to Europe legally for the purpose of exercising their right to seek asylum. It is even a criminal offense to help someone along the way, even if such aid was to be given freely and was idealistically motivated. However, if they succeed in entering Europe, the right to seek asylum kicks in at full force.

Making access to Europe easier for those who wish to seek asylum, would naturally have improved the situation for the refugees. However, it would have consequences for the recipient countries that few will be willing to accept. Tens of millions of people in the world qualify for refugee status. In addition, many others would want to try.

Screening in advance

An alternative is that Europe establishes a better and more comprehensive system to screen and assess the refugees before they travel to Europe. In this way you could select the most vulnerable and those with the greatest and most urgent protection needs, and then transfer them to European countries. In combination with comprehensive assistance to those who are left behind, such a system would better meet the real needs and thus be more fair and reasonable.

This is what Norway actually does when we accept resettlement refugees. However, Europe as a whole accepts a very small number of refugees through this scheme, and only a small fraction of the number of people who are accepted after applying for asylum. Most European countries do not accept any resettlement refugees at all, and most of those that do only receive a number that can be considered as symbolic.

A changed system

Let us imagine a completely different system. A system in which Europe annually receive up to several hundred thousand resettlement refugees and distributed them among the countries. The number might vary from year to year, taking into account the current refugee situation. In a Europe with around 500 million inhabitants, this would be a relatively manageable task. However, a prerequisite for creating popular and political support for such a system is that the existing system where the right to seek asylum is the foundation of the international refugee regime, ceases to exist in its current form.

What would the consequences of this be?

For the refugees there would be many benefits. Those with the greatest need would increasingly be ensured protection because selection would take place in advance. And those who arrived in Europe would not have had to pay smugglers and risk their lives on a dangerous journey. Family members could to a larger extent arrive in Europe together.

The total number of people that would end up being recognized as refugees in Europe as a whole could easily be as high as today, or higher.

Knowing the identity

The distribution between the receiving countries would be improved because the refugees would be allocated a country before they travelled into Europe. The possibility to apply in a country other than the one they had been allocated would be gone.

Screening and approval of the refugees prior to entering Europe would mean that we knew their identity and protection needs before they arrived. Those who should be excluded for security reasons would not be let in.

When the refugees arrive in Europe, the integration process could start immediately. Today authorities’ fear of becoming more attractive as a destination country is impeding the integration process. This follows from the automatic right to seek asylum. Instead, countries could compete to achieve the best integration, which would benefit all.

It would be easier for people in poor countries to visit relatives and friends in Europe. Today many people are prevented from this opportunity due to border controls and a strict visa regime, which has become even stricter for the exact reason that the authorities wish to prevent people from seeking asylum.

More regulated

Xenophobia would be reduced and confidence in European authorities would increase because people would see that immigration took place in more regulated forms. Nothing is more apt to fuel people’s fear than the perception of an immigration system out of control.

Obviously, such a system will not prevent all forms of illegal immigration. However, we know that the right to seek asylum is the most important driving force for illegal entry to Europe. Other factors, such as the black economy and possibilities for illegal work are also important. However, these factors can be counteracted without significant negative side effects.

To change the international refugee regime is obviously no easy matter. The right to seek asylum is part of international law. It is also regulated by EU legislation. A change must have a humanitarian basis, and must ensure refugees an immediate safe haven. However, a new scheme must also be based on the recognition that the current system neither protects fundamental humanitarian principles nor the right of states to control immigration. In the meantime, the right to seek asylum has strong support as the only alternative we have.

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