How can we make European asylum policy more humane? European debate in Amsterdam

The Amsterdam student debating society Bonaparte hosted a public debate about the question: “Fortress Europe: is it time for a more liberal European asylum policy?” in cooperation with IDEA NL and Bürger Europas in the CREA student centre on November 20.  

Bonaparte members Walter Freeman and Axel Hirschel co-hosted the event. Judith Sargentini, Member of the European Parliament for GroenLinks (GreenLeft, GL) and Bonaparte chair Harriët Bergman argued in favour of the motion. The opposition consisted of Martijn Lunter, University of Amsterdam assistant professor in European law, and member of Bonaparte Koen Voors, former Board member of the youth wing of the liberal party VVD that opposes weakening restrictions on asylum. Peter Croonenbruck from Bürger Europas introduced the Europe-wide project, after which the speakers kicked off their debate.

The speakers all accepted that refugees should be helped in as humane a manner as possible, that we should try to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean in such a dangerous fashion and that cooperation among European nations would be preferable over the current stand off between Northern-European nations willing to pay for refugee centres in Southern Europe but unwilling to relieve the burden in terms of numbers they take in and Southern European nations unwilling to make their asylum system accept higher numbers of refugees.

"Asylum policies are inhumane and force refugees, labour migrants and human traffickers together"

According to the proponents, the main solutions would be to separate the flows of refugees and migrant labourers by making it easier for migrants to work legally in Europe and by allowing refugees to seek asylum in embassies. Lastly, Sargentini stated that European nations should never step away from responsibility to house and feed asylum seekers waiting for their decisions. Bergman added that when it becomes easier to get short-term work permits, it will be easier for labour migrants to return to their home countries after a while, thereby putting less stress on receiving countries carrying capacity and providing them more protection. She argued that those who risk their lives to enter Europe now have probably burned all bridges and will not be able to return, so that it is almost irrelevant what caused them to leave. Separating labour migration from refugees would stop that.

The opponents preferred the system of UNHCR classifications of refugees and agreed that more European countries should probably take in more refugees from that system.  The system takes longer but is fairer than granting asylum on the basis of a criterion “who made it to Europe or to a nice embassy”. At the same time, we already accept a lot of refugees and there is a limit to the carrying capacity that our countries have. Lunter argued that when people start fearing refugees and the costs that they bring in terms of integration and social welfare, we should consider finding better solutions. In addition, he believed it unfair and inhumane to keep on giving false hope to asylum seekers with little chance of getting a status through lengthy judicial procedures. As Voors stated: living in limbo for a decade is depressing and often ends up in a declaration to be sent back anyways.

"Strict and speedy decisions bring clarity. That is humane, leaving people in limbo is not."

The debate then opened up for the audience to ask questions. They clarified a few more differences between the proponents and opponents. The questions also pointed to a number of differences: the proposition speakers argued that a more liberal policy would lead to fewer deaths of migrants seeking to enter Europe, which the opposition questioned. The opposition did not accept that the risk one takes to enter a country, or when one flees a country should count in an asylum procedure, only how much risk there is when returning. The proposition disagreed with the opposition on whether any level of appeal should be disallowed, as at least 20% of decisions in the Netherlands are eventually appealed. The opposition argued that in most cases this just leaves people in limbo for years.

The proposition and opposition speakers all had one final chance to argue their case, before the audience was asked for a vote. The vast majority voted for the proposition, while the audience was relatively equally divided on the issue before the debate. Walter Freeman invited all students who enjoyed the debate to come to Bonaparte’s debate location ‘t Gespuis next Thursday for more debates.

Pictures of the debate are now available online. The European Debates are a follow-up to the project Klartext Europa that started a series of public debates between university students and politicians on European political themes across German-speaking countries in 2013. IDEA NL is the partner for the Netherlands, and coordinates between Bürger Europas and Dutch student debating societies. The first Dutch debate took place in Rotterdam in May, another one is planned in Leiden in December.

The European debates allow politicians to not only debate in front of a student audience, but to debate together with talented student speakers and engage with questions from the audience in a style inspired by the Oxford  Chamber debates. Find out more about the format on the project’s Facebook page and the website of the Verband der Debattierclubs an Hochschulen (VDCH). The project is made possible with funding from the European Parliament, the Allianz Cultural Foundation and the German Federal Press and Information Office.