Ricarda Breyton is a reporter for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper who is participating in the International Center for Journalists’ Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.
Books about foreign policy do not typically reach bestseller status in Germany. But when the Berlin-based migration expert Gerald Knaus published What Borders Do We Need? in 2020, it bucked the trend – appearing on the Spiegel Bestsellerliste as one of the most widely sold books at the time.
In the book, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative confronted a hot topic: looking for ways to tackle the European Union’s incoherent refugee policy. With demands for a tight grip on asylum claimants still high in many parts of Europe, Mr. Knaus doesn’t simply argue in favour of restricting the intakes of people in need of protection, nor does he propose rebooting Germany’s open-door policy of 2015. Instead, he suggests looking to Canada’s refugee policy – of being welcoming but selective – as a role model for Europe.
In one chapter, he describes how Marion Dewar, a former mayor of Ottawa, responded when the boat people fled Vietnam in the 1970s. She allowed many in need of protection to resettle in her city – thus revolutionizing the Canadian private sponsorship of refugees program, which is now a pillar of the Canadian immigration system. “Germany should act like Canada,” Mr. Knaus recently told me. The country should “agree to resettle at least 0.05 per cent of its population each year under the resettlement scheme, or about 41,000 people.” At the same time, he advises European countries to negotiate deals with refugees’ countries of origin to make sure that those who are not entitled to protection quickly return, to discourage people from even trying to make their way to Europe irregularly in the first place.
He is not the only European migration expert who, with the EU’s refugee policy in a shambles, is pointing to the Canadian system. The 2015 Syrian crisis exposed how unprepared the continent was for large streams of refugees and migrants; hundreds of thousands of asylum claimants entered the EU without being properly registered, prompting policy debate and public anger. Things have not changed much since: The EU has begun to secure its borders more strongly, but it still hasn’t found a coherent approach for dealing with people in need of protection – an urgent issue, given a new refugee crisis looming, sparked by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
The EU’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, has been outspoken on the issue, urging governments to avoid a repeat of the situation in 2015. Refugees should not make their way to Europe on smuggling routes, she declared in a meeting of EU interior ministers in August; the EU should actively take in the most vulnerable refugees instead. “Countries like the U.S. and Canada have provided generous quotas for these resettlements,” she said in an interview with the magazine Der Spiegel. “The EU needs to do the same now.”
Several European countries support this approach, but they are careful not to mention any concrete numbers. Politicians know that right-wing populists are quick to weaponize any significant promises around taking in refugees. Many European countries are also still playing begrudging host to large numbers of irregular migrants as they face difficulties in deporting them back, including Austria, where Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has outright refused to take in any more Afghan refugees.
Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, has himself said that it wouldn’t be “wise” to talk about numbers. But he also said that Germany had always agreed to resettlement programs for particularly “maltreated” people. “We are willing to do this,” he said. Meanwhile, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn asked the EU “to provide 40,000 to 50,000 resettlement places for Afghan refugees.” And Ms. Johansson has scheduled a high-level resettlement forum for later this month – one that will include representatives from Canada.
The proponents of more significant resettlement argue that a refugee scheme like Canada’s would benefit many sides. “Resettlement ensures that those who really need help come to Europe,” Mr. Knaus said. He called it to be “fairer than uncontrolled refugee movements because women and children also have a chance of being accepted.” Previously, it would have been chiefly “daring men who embark on the dangerous refugee routes,” he said. Mr. Knaus also sees resettlement as a way to support those countries that have provided first support to refugees, such as Turkey, Kenya, or Jordan. “You show them that you support them ... in a very practical way by accepting some people in particular need of protection.”
Such a shift in policy would come at a price, though. The idea of a common European refugee policy, for instance, would officially be buried, since not all EU countries would be willing to follow the Canadian path, potentially weakening the region’s effort to speak with one voice. And if countries like Germany, Sweden, France, and Luxembourg go ahead and adopt larger resettlement schemes, conflict with other European countries could arise owing to the continent’s lack of internal border checks, allowing resettled refugees to travel freely once they’ve arrived on the continent – and thus allowing them to enter other countries who might be more reticent.
Political analysts also say that while the Canadian refugee scheme is a success in protecting some of the most vulnerable people, it is enabled by significant domestic support because the government is simultaneously rigorous on asylum claimants who do not have access through the regular system. “You have this strange dialectic between openness to a degree for people we pick ... and strictness on those who we don’t select and we don’t need but who may pick us,” Phil Triadafilopoulos, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told The Globe and Mail. He recounts that Canada has become more selective in recent decades, with federal governments over the years reacting harshly to boat people or asylum claimants that irregularly crossed the U.S.-Canadian border. Dr. Triadafilopoulos leaves the question open as to whether this is good or bad – but advises European countries eager to adopt the Canadian system to keep this potential conflict in mind.
But this much is certain: If several European countries were to agree on larger resettlement numbers – following in Canada’s footsteps – it would be a fundamental shift in refugee policy for a continent that has recently focused on keeping out as many refugees as possible
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