Thousands of refugees continue to hope that the border into Macedonia from Greece will open, but northward routes remain closed. Their fate for now is uncertain, but it is clear that almost all new refugees who cross the Aegean Sea to Greece will be sent back to Turkey. That is what the European Union and Turkey agreed last week.
At much cost and at a too-high political price, Europeans are now transferring responsibility for protecting refugees to states beyond E.U. borders. A disreputable deal with an autocratic regime in which the individual’s right to asylum has become nothing more than empty words.
The European asylum system, which before the refugee crisis was praised as the best and most humane in the world, is now only a pleasant memory.
This is the pessimistic view of what the European Union is currently doing, and it is justified. Governmental leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán will never be satisfied — they will demand tougher measures as long as there are refugees wandering on European soil. The Hungarian prime minster reiterates that he won’t listen to more sermons from the "horde of diehard human rights proponents."
"Our European laws on asylum only work when there is good weather" says an expert
But one can also take a more hopeful view of the transaction with Ankara, and not only because things could have become much worse. A more optimistic appraisal is suggested by experiences in other crises, including the fight over the euro or Britain’s potential withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc.
There as well, the initial response was that the situation was horrible and would ultimately cause the demise of the European Union. But whenever even the faintest trace of cooperation disappears — and death knells toll for the "Community of 28" — the most important protagonists come together for a grand rescue.
And behold: Freed from unnecessary ballast and excessive claims, the European Union has up to now emerged from these conflicts even stronger. It is quite possible that the refugee crisis will also take such a turn and give rise to a functioning European asylum system that does a better job of protecting refugees than the current chaos.
Surprisingly, representatives of the United Nations refugee agency make this same argument from their base in Geneva. Of course, they express reservations regarding the deal with Turkey — that’s their job as guardians of the right to asylum. And it’s possible that everything could still go wrong.
But some U.N. refugee officials secretly hope that Europeans will finally bring some order to the chaos that they themselves helped to create.
Last January, when tens of thousands of migrants were heading northward week after week from Greece, one UNHCR official said the European Union must protect its external borders and "can no longer allow asylum seekers to choose a country on their own."
The U.N. official requested strict anonymity in order to speak openly.
"Europeans have stretched their common asylum policy too far," the official said. "With the support of the courts, they have sometimes overloaded it with human rights and thereby endangered its acceptance."
The UNHCR official is not alone in thinking this. The same criticism can be heard at the European Union in Brussels, in the halls of the government in Berlin and in the offices of German asylum judges.
"Our European laws on asylum only work when there is good weather," said a high-ranking E.U. official. "It is doomed to fail when suddenly more than a million refugees seek protection."
And a renowned, left-leaning German judge speaks of an "excessively idealistic body of (asylum) law," which threatens to be overwhelmed by globalization.
Not so long ago in 2013, champagne corks popped in Brussels as E.U. member countries celebrated "the world’s most perfect asylum system."
They had just passed a new set of asylum laws that arranged everything down to the finest detail — arrival and registration, initial reception and provision of social services, and finally the return of rejected applicants. Over the years, they had agreed this unanimously, which seems like a wonder, when you consider it from today’s perspective.
Then came countless regulations in dozens of guidelines and decrees, altogether comprising almost 800 pages of small print. Jan Bergmann, an administrative law judge and asylum law expert in Stuttgart, calls this "deluxe law."