MMC interviews Gerald Knaus:
“Invasion? What invasion?”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The idea that Europe is being overrun by migrants fails to stand up to scrutiny, insists Gerald Knaus, who believes implementation of the EU-Turkey deal needs to be improved, and that wrong-headed EU policies are fuelling the current tide of populism.

In advanced economies of the global North we see a high need for labour in important sectors but a low tolerance of migrants. We see high values expressed but little appetite to take refugees. How would you explain these apparent contradictions?

I am not sure these are contradictions. Take Germany, which saw a wave of support in 2015 for taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees. People had seen images of the war in Syria, of children drowning on the way to the EU. There was a broad consensus to support refugees and a government prepared to mobilise billions to ensure that an inflow of up to 10,000 people a day in autumn 2015 could be handled. This mobilisation worked amazingly well. Two years after almost one million people arrived, in 2017, Germany awarded refugee status and subsidiary protection more than 220,000 times, more than the rest of the EU and the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico and South Korea combined. And today there is still legal migration and backing for helping refugees. A recent poll in Bild Zeitung showed 11 percent who opposed taking any refugees, 42 percent who wanted numbers to be reduced, 30 percent who were fine with the current situation and seven percent who argued that more could be taken in. A smart policy builds on this and combines better control and a reduction of irregular migration with continued protection for those who need it. The German public wants things to be managed, but it has not lost empathy.

The picture is very different elsewhere. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a hero also of the German far-right, decries a loss of control by weak elites leading to the destruction of European civilization. He evokes an imaginary invasion of millions of African and Middle Eastern Muslims. Imaginary, because in the first eight months of 2018 the total number of people who crossed the Mediterranean to Spain, Italy and Greece was only 70,000. The number of tourists who arrive in Paris daily is more than 90,000. Hungary has had a total 3,400 asylum applications in 2017 and 450 in the first six months this year. But Orban fans these fears because it helps him win elections, and because he believes that he can inspire a broad anti-migration illiberal European movement. To challenge the pan-European coalition he is constructing, one needs to insist on the difference between regular migration, which countries should decide on themselves, [and] irregular migration, which should indeed be reduced but in line with existing laws and protection for those who need it. One needs to build a counter-coalition and win the debate over how to reassert control.

As the proposer of what is known as the EU-Turkey Statement you are critical of its success. You have spoken of how to increase the negligible numbers of returns to Turkey, for example, and the fact that it’s not being implemented properly. Can you elaborate?

The goal was to achieve a reduction in irregular arrivals, end the drowning of hundreds of people crossing the Aegean and replace irregular migration with an orderly process, helping refugees in Turkey and resettling some. The statement achieved many of these aims, and to date no one has come up with a better alternative, but it is so badly implemented that on the Greek islands we now have some of the worst refugee reception centres in the developed world. Instead of taking a few weeks it takes more than a year to come to a decision who can be returned to Turkey. As a result, very few people are returned — 25 a month this year so far. Instead people are kept on the islands unnecessarily under shameful conditions. We need to properly implement
the agreement.

You have said the EU asylum policy is in a state of “drift” and the failure to process asylum seekers effectively means that Europe continues to be a strong magnet for refugees and migrants. You have also promoted the Dutch fast-track eight-week system. Do you see any appetite for EU countries to adopt your proposals?

On the level of public debate there is broad agreement across Europe that faster asylum procedures, return of those who do not need protection in the EU and relocation amongst a group of countries of those who get protection, are all needed. Our specific proposals on how to do this have been endorsed by many, in Germany and elsewhere, in recent years. What is missing is a mechanism to implement this. In Brussels, European institutions are paralysed by the polarisation between member states such as Germany and Hungary. Badly thought-through proposals coming from the European Commission in 2016 polarised the debate further and made it easy for populists, whose message is all too simple: nobody should come — neither refugees nor irregular migrants — and everyone should be sent back. In this situation the way forward is for some countries to come together as a coalition and focus on how to implement a humane policy that can also be easily communicated: no refoulement, no deterrence through bad treatment, sea rescues to prevent deaths, and quick processing and quick returns of anyone who arrives and does not need protection in the EU. All of this is possible, doable, done somewhere, but we lack the teams working on it concretely.

You have argued that effective processing and effective return of rejected applicants will and should act as a deterrent. First, can you point to a precedent showing where this has worked and second, from the refugee or migrant perspective, isn’t the gamble always worth taking, considering the perceived benefits of being successful as irregular migrants?

People take high risks when they see a high chance of success. Cubans got into boats in 1995 to head to Florida until the moment when the Clinton administration persuaded the Castro government to take them back. This agreement was followed by an immediate reduction in people leaving. In return, the US offered opportunities for legal migration from Cuba. We proposed something similar in 2015, and indeed the EU-Turkey Statement from March 2016 also resulted in immediate reductions in the number of people coming. We saw a dramatic drop from 2,000 people per day in January and February 2016 to 50 per day within a few months. Without this it is doubtful Angela Merkel would have remained chancellor in Germany or a far-right president could be avoided in Austria in 2016. A massive increase in EU spending on social support for refugees in Turkey was also crucial. But then things went wrong as European leaders became complacent. No coherent system was agreed with the Greek authorities to process applications. A low number of arrivals removed the sense of urgency. Instead of setting up processing centres offering humane conditions, fast processing, and returns of those not in need of protection in the EU we saw a variation of the Australian system emerge on Lesbos: deterrence through bad conditions, in violation of Greek and European law.

Various migration experts and commentators have said western liberal democracies do not have the stomach to restrain irregular migration and that increased migration is inevitable. What is your view on this?

This argument is empirically false and politically dangerous. The US did stop boats leaving from Cuba in 1995, Spain did stop boats leaving from Senegal in 2005 and the EU-Turkey Statement has stopped people arriving in 2016. If those in favour of human rights and the Refugee Convention declare that “nothing can be done” they simply yield the stage to those who, like Salvini and Orban, assert that they know what to do, are prepared to employ drastic measures, and ready to block sea rescues, push people back into danger without procedures and suspend international conventions.

We need to reduce irregular arrivals also from the humanitarian point of view. In the last four years more than 14,000 people drowned in the Central Mediterranean. This is a humanitarian disaster. Note also that the highest number of people drowning — almost 4,600 in 2016 — happened at the time of the highest number of rescues and rescue boats at sea. And the deadliest half year in the recent history of the Central Mediterranean was the period May to October 2014, the second half of the Italian rescue effort Mare Nostrum, when 3,000 people died in six months. It is obvious that the only way to reduce the loss of lives is to combine sea rescues with efforts so that fewer people get into boats, or indeed fewer go to Libya. The humane way to achieve this is to make clear that anyone not in need of international protection will be returned to their countries of origin within weeks of arrival, and that the EU supports strongly any effort to get people out of Libya. We should also offer countries of origin mobility and quotas for regular migration. We need a serious debate [about] how to return those who do not need protection quickly, how to increase resettlement of refugees, and how to increase help to refugees in countries hosting them at the moment. These are also the key principles behind the EU-Turkey statement.

Some argue that a failure to fully harness open, global migration is a huge missed opportunity. What do you think?

If mobility is managed it can be both beneficial and politically acceptable. If there is a sense of loss of control, however, politics can turn ugly quickly. In democracies any policy needs majority support to be sustainable. We know that societies can be generous when it comes to accepting refugees. Australia took in a lot of Vietnamese refugees under Malcom Fraser in the late 1970s, and Germany and Sweden did so in recent years. We also know that societies can benefit from regular immigration. We see this in all truly creative cities, from medieval Venice or Naples to modern New York, London and Berlin. But fearful societies do not focus on opportunities.

Alarmists cite rising global population and Gallup poll reports pointing to the high number of potential migrants (700 million) wanting to access advanced economies. Others say this is an exaggeration and most people want to stay where they are. Are demographics relevant?

The population of Africa has doubled between the late 1980s and today already. And yet, the total number of people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe each month during these decades was never more than a few thousand, with few exceptional years as in 2014-2017. The far right peddles fantasies of invasions because it lives off fear. I do not understand why liberals would to this. The image of millions of Africans sitting on their suitcases is not serious. The message that Europe has no choice but either to accept millions every year or to create illiberal states that give up on human rights is misleading. We can combine empathy and control.

The migration/refugee debate has become highly polemical and seems to also be a struggle between pragmatism and principle. Or “empathy and control” as you have said. It seems like an impossible problem where few people will be pleased with the outcome.

We need to define what is non-negotiable. Nobody who reaches Europe should be pushed into a situation where they are likely to be tortured or killed; that is the heart of the Refugee Convention. Nobody must be left to drown. No European society can embrace racist theories. When Viktor Orban referred in February 2018 to London as an example of a city where European civilisation has already been defeated, he alluded to the racist stories of those who worry about a Muslim mayor or about cities with big non-White, non-Christian populations. He embraces the same stories and arguments as radical movements, such as the identitarians. Pragmatism can never mean indulging such politics or accepting the idea of borders to be closed “at whatever price”.

How did Australia balance pragmatism and principle?

Australia did not get the balance right. Yes, Australia stopped deaths at sea and irregular arrivals by boats in 1981 and 2013. This turned it into inspiration to some politicians in Europe. However, boats were stopped at a very high human cost. Since 2013 a few thousand people have been held, many for years, under inhumane conditions on islands such as Nauru and Manus. Why did it take so long for a few asylum applications to be decided? Why was no bigger effort made to relocate all [those] found to be in need of protection to a country where a decent life is possible? Efforts by the Labor government to reach such an agreement with Malaysia in 2011 failed, [and were] attacked at the time by both the right, which pushed for Nauru, and human rights groups.

An improved version of the 2011 agreement would still be the best way to combine control, the saving of lives and respect for the dignity of anyone who arrives. Note that there were never more than 2,500 people on Manus and Nauru, combined. This is a small number compared to the 20,000 now on the Aegean islands. The best would be for a successful European policy in the Mediterranean to serve as a model also to Australia. We are far from this now.

Many would say Turkey is absolutely not a safe third country. Arguably, nor is Libya, Niger and other destinations. Is this an example of “externalisation” and of where principle has been trumped by cynical political pragmatism?

It comes down to one question: do we have procedures in place to decide whether it is safe to return somebody? In the case of the EU-Turkey Statement we do, although decisions, including appeals, take far too long. No one can be sent to Turkey unless an individualised assessment finds that this person will be safe in Turkey. As Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, standards for transferring asylum seekers that apply to the return of people from Switzerland to Italy or Greece should apply here too and be verifiable. This can be done. It is very different with Libya, where it is crystal clear that there is no way to return anyone today legally: there is torture, there are no provisions to offer protection. The term “externalisation” introduces confusion, however. It implies that any attempts to reduce arrivals are wrong, that the only legitimate outcome is for anyone who needs protection to make their way to the EU and that all efforts to prevent this are illegitimate. This misses key distinctions: for Italy under Berlusconi in 2009 to return people without procedures to Libya is not the same as for Greece in 2018 to return people following a procedure to Turkey. To cooperate with Niger to stop smugglers taking people across the Sahara to certain mistreatment in Libya can be legitimate; it depends on how it is done.

Increasingly, commentators are suggesting the Refugee Convention and the global refugee regime need reform to face modern challenges. Who qualifies for protection and how the responsibility is shared is at the core of the debate. How relevant and legitimate are terms such as “survival migration”, especially in the light of some prognoses around the impacts of climate change?

We are facing so many urgent problems at this very moment, in Europe but also in the US and Australia, that it seems more urgent to focus on these. How can we ensure continued sea rescues in the Central Mediterranean, and where should the people who are rescued be taken to safety? How can we improve conditions on the Greek islands before the next winter and beyond? How can the EU help get more people out of the terrible detention centres in Libya? What needs to happen to halt the rise of political parties that want to do away with the right to asylum altogether? How can the EU help displaced refugees in countries like Lebanon and Jordan like it has done in Turkey? These are questions to which we have no good answers at this moment, and no clear policies. The same is true for the deplorable state of the asylum system in the US, or the unresolved problem of people stuck in Nauru. One can of course always open a debate on the definition of what is a refugee, but at this moment it is more likely to encourage illiberal political forces we do not want to
see encouraged.

How do you think the global refugee and migration compacts will affect the context for policy development and implementation?

They will not do any harm, and I cannot asses how they might help defenders of refugee and migrant rights elsewhere in the world, but as non-binding commitments they are unlikely to help liberals address the most urgent issues we face today in Europe or the US. When a US president tweets that he wants to get rid of judges to assess protection claims, and when children are separated from parents, we face an emergency. When an Italian interior minister says that he wants to turn around boats to Libya, we face an attack on the core of the Refugee Convention, which is binding but at risk. Today, core human rights conventions are under threat as never before in recent years. We need to be focused, building coalitions to preserve what we inherited. That is a big battle for the next years.