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Interview: Cecilia Malmström on Migration and Asylum Policy in the EU

picture: Europaportalen.se, Flickr
picture: Europaportalen.se, Flickr

The EU’s Common Migration and Asylum policies often spark heated debate between member states and parties. The Lampedusa boat disaster in October coupled with the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis have reinvigorated the debate on the EU’s responsibilities toward asylum seekers. On November 25, 2013, the current EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, was welcomed to Lund by UPF and LUPEF to speak about the challenges facing the EU’s asylum and migration policies.

Q: Commissioner Malmström,  as you mentioned, currently 5 EU member states are accepting 70% of all asylum seekers; Germany and Sweden, who account for the majority of refugees from Syria, have criticized that more neighboring countries should share the burden but haven’t claimed their weight yet. What in your opinion could or has to be done to increase the willingness of other EU countries to accept refugees?

A: I think it is a duty of all 28 countries of the European Union to open up for resettlement of refugees at least to a certain extent; these refugees are the most vulnerable people taken into account by the UNHCR, who could be safely taken to Europe, be given protection and thereby avoid getting on rickety boats. But we cannot force member states, but only ask and provide technical, economic and transport assistance. So far, there has been a slight change as some member states, who haven’t accepted refugees before, have announced to do so, but still all 28 member states can do more.

Q: Refugee capacities in countries within proximity to Syria, especially in the poorest member state Bulgaria, have been exceeded by far already and an end to the civil war is not in near sight: what can the EU do right now to assists Bulgaria?

A: We have actually engaged a lot with Bulgaria; my colleagues have been there several times to identify the needs. We have mobilized money, technical support and staff, which are needed as there are not enough people to conduct the [asylum] interviews. Bulgaria is doing a very important but tough job dealing with the current situation and so we are trying to assist them as much as possible.

And today I heard that the United Nations have declared that there will be a first round of peace talks for Syria in Geneva in January. Of course, this won’t change the situation immediately, but it is a very positive step that all sides have agreed to talk.

Q: Currently Sweden has the highest ratio of Syrian refugees in relation to its own population. Moreover the Swedish Migration Board has announced that permanent residence would be granted to Syrian refugees. However, at the same time the unemployment rate and the populist Sweden Democrats are on the rise in the polls. Do you think Sweden’s open door policy will sustain?

A: I must say I am very proud of the Swedish society, who has taken up this policy and apart from the Sweden Democrats, this decision is backed by all political parties.

We see the horrors every day: how children and how women are suffering in Syria.  I think Sweden should take responsibility and so it is right that its policy provides these possibilities. Of course we have to stand up for it and explain that these refugees not only need shelter, but are willing to work with many of them being highly educated as well. However, it is also important to push other countries to take greater responsibilities.

Q: In the light of growing resentment and frustration about rising numbers of immigrants in many EU countries, what can be done to counter the negative trend and raise public awareness for the benefits of immigration?

A: This is something that requires political leadership on all levels: first of all, we have to stress the humanitarian argument, that everybody can see the suffering, especially in Syria, but also in other countries. Then, there are lots of statistics, research results and reports from the OECD showing that, by and large, immigration is an asset for the receiving countries: people bring not only their experience and entrepreneurship, but also work to a larger extent in most cases, which currently varies a little due to the downturn of the financial crisis. But nonetheless they pay taxes and contribute to the economies.

And these arguments need to be made – every day – by politicians in the debates, but also by you and me when talking at the tables, talking to the neighbors or at a party on a Friday night. We need to stand up to defend these arguments and not let racist claims stand uncontested.

Q: Thank you very much, this brings us to our final question: what is your message for us students; how can we contribute to an improvement in the current refugee crisis in our everyday lives?

A: You can do a lot: today I actually met students from Lund University, who are engaged in the Red Cross friends project, in which they go out to the refugee centers, where also a lot of young people live. These students spent time with them, try to be their friends, play football and take them to the movies – they try to alleviate a bit of the pressure that these children face. And this is something very concrete you can do to make life a little easier for very lonely unaccompanied minors who have come here. Also you can go into debates, stand up and make sure in the European Parliament elections and other elections many voices are heard and that you do not accept the very simplistic rhetoric of xenophobic voices.

LIKKI LEE PITZEN

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