EU pact on migration: Solidarity at the choice of member states

EU pact on migration: Solidarity at the choice of member states
Press conference on 23 September, credit: EU, 2020

The European Commission proposed on Wednesday a new Pact on Migration and Asylum aiming at striking a balance between the divergent views of the member states.

The Commission admits that the current system no longer works and that the EU has been unable to fix it for the past five years. At a press conference (23 September), Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, referred to the overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek islands and the burndown camp Moria on Lesbos as an example of “lack of Europe”.

“Moria is a stark reminder that the clock has run out on how long we can live in a house half-built. The time has come to rally around a common, European migration policy. No member state experiences migration in the same way and the different and unique challenges faced by all deserve to be recognised, acknowledged and addressed.”

He described the Commission proposal, following months of consultations with all member states and the European Parliament, as a house with three floors and built on two pillars, solidarity and responsibility. “We have learned the lessons and wounds from the past.”

The first floor is improving cooperation with the countries of origin and transit, the second floor ensuring effective management of border procedures, and the third floor the successful integration of refugees or the return of those with no right to stay. Considering the current migration flows, compared with the past, the focus in the proposal is on the return of the majority of irregular migrants.

In 2015, when the number of irregular migrants peaked to over one million, the overwhelming majority of them were refugees fleeing from wars and in need of protection, explained Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Home Affairs. In 2019, the number of irregular migrants had decreased to 140,000. The asylum applications of two thirds of them were rejected by the member states.

Europe with its aging population needs migrants and granted legal residence permits to 2,4 million people in 2019, she said. What it needs to do now is to fight smugglers networks and reduce the number of irregular migrants. “If you have no legal right to stay in Europe, you have to go back.”

Two procedures

To achieve this, the Commission is proposing an integrated border procedure, which for the first time will include a pre-entry screening covering identification of all people crossing the EU's external borders without permission or having been disembarked after a search and rescue operation. The screening entails also a health and a security check and registration in a common EU database.

After the screening, individuals can be channelled to either a return border procedure or a normal asylum procedure. The aim is to ensure that swift decisions on asylum or return will be made, providing predictability for migrants at EU’s external borders.

The border procedure applies for migrants coming from countries with a recognition rate for international protection below 20 % or if their claim is fraudulent or abusive or if they pose a threat to national security. It will not apply to unaccompanied children and families with children under the age of 12. For vulnerable people, it would only apply after an individual assessment.

The deadline for examining claims under the asylum border procedure should not exceed 12 weeks, including a single appeal. Applications for international protection should be examined as quickly as possible while guaranteeing a complete and fair examination of the claims. The duration of the return border procedure is also limited to 12 weeks with one appeal.

The Commission counts on the cooperation with the countries to which the migrants will have to return. “We have readmission agreements with most of them and don’t need to threaten them to accept returning migrants,” Johansson said. The EU will seek to promote tailor-made and mutually beneficial partnerships with third countries.

The Commission considers that if someone’s asylum claim is rejected today, it is because that the applicant can safely return to his/her country, based on an individual assessment. Currently, there is no common EU list of safe third countries and countries of origin and the new pact calls for a higher degree of harmonisation through EU lists.

Another problem is rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. According to a report in February, illegal migrants in distress in the Mediterranean Sea are returned to countries in north Africa that cannot be considered as places of safety. Especially Libya, to which most migrants are returned, can under no circumstances can be considered a place of safety.

Flexible solidarity

The other main point in the Commission proposal is the solidarity mechanism. Member States will be bound to act responsibly and in solidarity with one another. “Each member state, without any exception, must contribute in solidarity in times of stress, to help stabilize the overall system, support member states under pressure and ensure that the Union fulfils its humanitarian obligations.”

Commissioner Johansson explained that solidarity is not optional and member states will have to choose between either relocation of asylum seekers from the country of first entry or taking over the responsibility for returning individuals with no right to stay by so-called return sponsorships or various forms of operational support.

Member states will receive a financial contribution from the EU budget for relocation. A person with links to a certain member state, for example from previous work or education or having relatives there, will be able to apply for asylum in that country. In the absence of these criteria, the member state of irregular entry will be responsible for examining the asylum application.

Relocations on a voluntary basis may be deducted from the number of relocations that a member state would normally be obliged to undertake in situations of pressure. Under the return sponsorship, a member state commits to returning irregular migrants with no right to stay on behalf of another member state, doing this directly from the territory of the beneficiary member state.

The Commission proposal includes a number of new instruments and legislative proposals, most importantly among them a new asylum and migration regulation. A previous proposal on the Dublin Regulation is withdrawn. On the operational level, a new EU Agency for Asylum will be established to provide support and monitoring of the asylum system.

The Dublin Regulation determines that the country where the asylum seeker first entered Europe is normally responsible for the asylum application.  A Commission spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the regulation will be repealed and that the rules on assigning responsibility for asylum claims will be part of the new regulation with its much broader scope.

It will now be up for the European Parliament and Council to examine and adopt the legislation. The Commission urges them to reach a political agreement on the core principles in the proposal by the end of 2020 given the urgency of local situations in several member states. But some MEPs have already raised doubts that the new system will solve the migration crisis.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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