Faced with the brunt of asylum applications made in Europe this year and increasingly violent far-right reactions to newcomers, Germany has called for front-line migrant registration centres in Italy and Greece and a more even distribution of refugees across the EU. Such demands are understandable, but fail to consider the needs, motivations and tactics of desperate people on the run, as well as the dangerous consequences of such measures.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently presented the proposals together with French President François Hollande, apparently seeking to show Franco-German leadership on the deeply unpopular issue. A few days later, Germany halted so-called Dublin-transfers of Syrian refugees to other European countries which would be responsible for their asylum applications under current EU rules – a move which acknowledges the difficulty of enforcing them.

It is an open secret that many refugees arriving in Italy and Greece are not registered so that they can continue their journeys to northern European countries like Germany and Sweden, either by crossing the Alps or the Balkans. What is less understood is the fact that many refugees travel north even if they have been registered properly. The Dublin Regulation’s requirement for asylum-seekers to stay in the first EU country they enter means little to refugees who have family members, friends, language skills or better chances of employment in other EU countries. In fact, most refugees know exactly where they want to go in Europe, and are determined to get there no matter what the obstacles are.

An EU-wide quota system in order to spread the “burden” of refugee reception is likely to be ignored by the same people who already refuse to have their fingerprints taken in Italy or Greece, and walk out of reception centres even if they have been registered. Refugees know that they have no future in Europe’s periphery, where unemployment is high and the means of accommodating them are low, so they go where there are better opportunities, better reception conditions and relatives who made it there before them.

EU-run registration centres in Italy and Greece would be even less effective, and would probably also create dangerous, unintended side-effects. Fearing their chances of being sent to a country they don’t want to live in or an immediate deportation back home if their asylum application is rejected, migrants will try to avoid those centres at all costs. Smugglers will create new routes to circumvent the current main points of arrival, thereby increasing the cost, duration and risk involved. Refugees will accept those conditions, as they already accept exorbitant prices and horrendous treatment, because desperation drives their rock-hard will to reach their final destination.

It may seem as if refugees are overly picky in their choice of exile, but to someone who has lost everything, a familiar face or the rumour of good job prospects may be their only point of reference, the only beacon of hope in a dark sea of uncertainty. Blocking access to that beacon will only strengthen their resolve to reach it.

Germany is correct to call for a common European approach to the issue; no single country can absorb the overwhelming majority of migrant arrivals to the EU. However, rather than proposing joint registration centres and distribution quotas that are unlikely to be supported by other EU member states or respected by refugees themselves, it should focus on temporary redistribution mechanisms for particularly large influxes into any single country, based on voluntary relocation. Not all refugees will refuse to be relocated, such as those with few or no ties to a particular country, or people frustrated by long waiting times for documents or overcrowded reception facilities. An EU fund could be set up to reduce the financial burden on member states receiving relocated refugees.

Above and beyond the question of reducing numbers, Germany – as well as all other European countries – should concentrate on integrating new arrivals and improving their acceptance in society. Migration will neither stop because of border controls nor arson attacks against reception centres, so the only productive way forward is to grasp the opportunity that migration actually presents for an ageing continent. Investing in integration, rather than fences and border guards, will solve this issue.

Marco Funk is the author of the book Fortress Europe’s Inner Wall: Migrant Dilemmas at the Brenner Pass, which focuses on irregular migrants seeking to reach northern Europe from Italy.

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