A committee of the European Parliament has proposed to issue humanitarian visas across the bloc. Would this help reduce illegal migration?
Safe and legal access to Europe without having to embark on a dangerous sea crossing - this sounds like a dream. And for most potential refugees and asylum seekers it is.
Humanitarian visas and humanitarian corridors are not EU wide policy at the moment. But after years of debate, the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), a committee of the European Parliament, is trying to change that. On October 10, 2018 they issued a statement calling for the possibility of establishing an EU-wide humanitarian visa program by changing the current visa rules.
Similar proposals have already met with opposition at the European Council and Parliament level in the past. But if LIBE’s proposal is voted through in November, LIBE will ask the European Commission to submit a legislative proposal for the visa by the end of March 2019.
According to the European Parliament, currently around 90 percent of people granted international protection reached the EU through irregular routes. The proposal aims to reduce the number of people having to embark on dangerous and illegal routes.
Different rules for different states
Currently, individual countries can issue humanitarian visas and create corridors, but there is no bloc-wide regulation. In 2015, the Italian government signed a pact to create a humanitarian corridor with two partner countries, Lebanon and Morocco. Ethiopia was added more recently. The corridor came about as an ecumenical church initiative and is based on a Memorandum of Understanding. The Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Waldensian Church have all been working to bring groups of vulnerable people to Italy to apply for refugee status. However, the numbers are limited. Sant’Egidio has so far brought over a couple a few hundred refugees and foresees the arrival of two thousand people over two years.
There are special resettlement programs in a few other EU countries. The Special Rapporteur at LIBE, Juan Fernando López Aguilar thinks that this facility should be made part of EU law. "Humanitarian visas allow asylum seekers to legally and safely access a third country," he writes. The number of people accessing various schemes like humanitarian corridors, community or private sponsorship schemes and resettlement programs "remains low compared to the need."
The authors of the report think that a bloc-wide system would offer safety to individuals. Migrants would no longer experience the "financial repercussions of paying smugglers, and heightened risks of trafficking, exploitation, violence and death."
A bloc-wide system would also save the EU money in the long term, the authors argue. With the current status quo, the fight against illegal migration and smuggling networks is costing the EU billions.
Besides policing costs, the EU also experiences high direct costs as a result of sending "high levels of emergency funding" to the member states who receive the would-be asylum seekers and migrants who have arrived in Europe irregularly. More money is spent "controlling the inflow of migrants and asylum seekers through border security and surveillance costs, search and rescue activities and cracking down on organized criminals who have been exploiting the refugee crisis for their personal gain."
According to studies commissioned by LIBE, maintaining the status quo through surveillance, border management, third country agreements, development cooperation and organized crime associated with migration, like human trafficking is costing the EU somewhere between 47 and 48 billion euros annually.
A formalized humanitarian visa could help to ensure refugee compliance with EU values and would include fundamental rights for those who receive it. Providing a legal means of accessing EU countries could also help people who lack the means to pay smugglers and would reduce the reliance on illegal networks like smuggling in order for people to reach safety.
An EU wide visa system would also take the added financial and organizational pressure off first reception countries like Italy and Greece who both spend millions dealing with migration on top of money received from the EU.
Individual country programs
Currently, Austria has a humanitarian admission program for Syria. Between 2013-2016, 1,668 people were received through that program. Germany has a similar program targeting Syria, Afghanistan, Palestinian territories, Egypt and Libya. In the same period, it let in 19,047 people. Ireland has a Syrian humanitarian admission program and a family reunification program that between 2013-16 issued 649 visas in total. France also targets Syria with a special program which had welcomed 3,415 people to date; and the UK, via its vulnerable persons relocation scheme had got just over half way to its target of 20,000 people resettled by 2020 in 2018.
According to a report by Violeta Moreno-Lax, a senior lecturer in Law at Queen Mary University of London, written for the European Parliament, 16 EU member states have or have had visas at their disposal for humanitarian reasons. The problem is that each country has different rules for qualification and the programs tend to target different groups of people which can make things unclear for those wanting to apply. Since March 2017, France, following Italy, has also begun experimenting with humanitarian corridors from Lebanon for 500 Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Not for everyone
In the conclusion of the reports presented to LIBE, all authors are clear that a humanitarian visa program would bring down both human and financial costs. What the report doesn’t target however is how many people wouldn’t qualify either for a humanitarian visa or for asylum once they do arrive. For those people, presumably illegal migration would remain the only route.
Moreno-Lax points out that bringing clarity to the visa application process will not diminish control but enhance it. It would allow for better screening of candidates and a better predictability of arrivals. This would avoid the current emergency spending that the EU sends to the border countries, Italy, Greece and to a lesser extent, Spain.