The EU’s New Migration Pact Is a Step in the Right Direction

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The EU has revealed its long-await­ed pact on migra­tion and asylum. Brought for­ward by a week, the timing seems an attempt to pacify the outrage over the devastating fire at the Greek refugee camp Moria that start­ed on September 8. Images of the fires showed an unprece­dent­ed – but pre­dictable – human cat­a­stro­phe. Some 13,000 people were left home­less after being crammed into a camp designed to host 3,000. They are now slowly being rehoused. Clearly the EU has lacked a coher­ent strat­e­gy on migra­tion.

The new pact promis­es a fresh start by mean­ing­ful­ly updat­ing a system that for years many have regard­ed as broken. Since the 2015 “crisis”, chron­ic inac­tion and sti­fled nego­ti­a­tions have meant that solu­tions have been pur­sued on an ad hoc basis. The griev­ances are well known.

Under the older regulations the first EU coun­try migrants entered was given pri­ma­ry respon­si­bil­i­ty for decid­ing their claim. In prac­tice, pop­u­lar migra­tion routes meant that south­ern European states shoul­dered a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of the respon­si­bil­i­ty. Meanwhile, cur­rents of xeno­pho­bia and aus­ter­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the so-called Visegrád states of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have meant that prospects of Europe speak­ing uni­form­ly have seemed remote.

Yet the archi­tects of the deal have recent­ly struck the right tone, deliv­er­ing encour­ag­ing slo­gans that exhib­it an under­stand­ing of the key issues. They promised a new bal­ance between respon­si­bil­i­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty. The mes­sage has been clear: “no more Morias”. The European’s Commission’s pres­i­dent, Ursula von der Leyen, pri­ori­tised a “humane solution”. It has been recog­nised that migra­tion is inevitable and even enrich­es soci­ety.

How, then, has the EU been able to nav­i­gate these com­pet­ing ten­sions? The answer, I think, is under­whelm­ing. There is still a dis­tance between polit­i­cal rhetoric and polit­i­cal com­mit­ments. The pact is large­ly char­ac­terised by the con­tin­u­a­tion of older ideas, favour­ing polit­i­cal con­sen­sus over human­i­tar­i­an impuls­es.

The EU’s House

Under the terms of the new pact, the EU’s approach to migra­tion man­age­ment is much more com­pre­hen­sive. It strength­ens its con­trol over every aspect of migra­tion – from influ­enc­ing the asylum seeker’s home coun­try, rein­forc­ing the EU’s exter­nal bor­ders at land and sea, to refin­ing the region’s inter­nal rules. The Commission’s vice-pres­i­dent, Margaritis Schinas, invokes the image of a house with three floors to demon­strate how this func­tions.

The first layer of its strat­e­gy, the ini­tial floor of the EU’s house, is direct­ed towards forg­ing part­ner­ships with for­eign states. It will use diplo­mat­ic incen­tives, such as finan­cial rewards or visa allo­ca­tions, to coop­er­ate with “third coun­tries” in order to restrict the out­ward flow of migrants. Improving con­di­tions in the region of origin is alleged to “keep people, for a better life, in their coun­tries” and to pre­vent human traf­fick­ing. This will sup­press the num­bers reach­ing Europe.

Yet it is not entire­ly moti­vat­ed by altru­ism. The EU has con­clud­ed sim­i­lar deals in the past, but is seem­ing­ly uncon­cerned about the con­duct of its part­ners or the ulti­mate con­se­quences. In Libya, for exam­ple, thou­sands have been held in deten­tion cen­tres in deplorable conditions as a direct result of EU poli­cies. Similar deals have been signed with Turkey, unde­terred by the spectre of authoritarianism.

A Frosty Welcome

If one man­ages to ascend the slip­pery stair­case to reach the house’s second floor – that is, enter­ing the EU – the wel­come is equal­ly frosty. This part of the strat­e­gy involves more invest­ment in polic­ing the seas for the arrival of migrant ves­sels as well as more border pro­cess­ing cen­tres on land.

The former involves Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. This EU agency has used its inflat­ed budget and the latest tech­nol­o­gy to dev­as­tat­ing effect by inter­cept­ing boats at sea. It is a ruth­less­ly effi­cient sen­tinel which has led to the num­bers of arrivals by sea drop dra­mat­i­cal­ly. But Frontex has also fre­quent­ly been accused of excusing abusive practices by NGOs and human rights groups and of suf­fer­ing from a lack of accountability. Thankfully, the EU has moved to decriminalise sea rescue attempts in the new pact, a move which brings it into line with inter­na­tion­al law.

Another mea­sure of con­trol is the use of recep­tion cen­tres at its fur­thest bor­ders. By “stream­lin­ing” its pro­ce­dures, the EU aims to inves­ti­gate claims more effi­cient­ly and pre­vent over­crowd­ing. Within five days of their arrival, migrants will be split into two groups, based on their coun­try of nation­al­i­ty. Should you orig­i­nate from a state where your com­pa­tri­ots have rarely been grant­ed asylum (chances of suc­cess lower than 20%) or from a coun­try the EU has arbi­trar­i­ly deemed “safe”, you are sub­mit­ted to a fast-tracked pro­ce­dure that is aimed at return­ing you home. Others can enjoy a full hear­ing.

Expediting the pro­ce­dure may sound pos­i­tive, but it is entire­ly con­ceiv­able that such recep­tion cen­tres might turn into refugee camps, just like Moria. It is fur­ther likely that this expe­dit­ed process may cir­cum­vent pro­ce­dur­al guar­an­tees to have one’s claim heard as well as the right to appeal neg­a­tive deci­sions. Return in such cases might endan­ger lives.

Mandatory Solidarity

The third and final “floor” involves the EU’s inter­nal rules. Under the pecu­liar idea of “manda­to­ry sol­i­dar­i­ty”, the EU seeks to dis­trib­ute the bur­dens of migra­tion more evenly across the bloc. The cen­tral idea is that no state can simply take a back seat: inac­tion is no longer an option.

Two sources of con­tention – manda­to­ry quotas for admit­ting refugees and the mech­a­nisms for deter­min­ing which coun­try is respon­si­ble for asylum claims – have been replaced. But respon­si­bil­i­ty for asylum claims mostly still falls to the coun­try to which asylum seek­ers have first trav­elled. Countries can choose to accept or assist with the return of refugees.

To help create more relo­ca­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties within Europe, the EU will offer coun­tries €10,000 for each refugee they admit. But if states remain averse to this course of action, they can par­tic­i­pate in “return spon­sor­ship”, assist­ing with their depor­ta­tion. It is prob­a­ble that the states that are most unwill­ing to accept asylum seek­ers will be charged with remov­ing refugees. To extend the house metaphor, even if one some­how climbs the first two floors, the third still car­ries the risk of defen­es­tra­tion.

Reading through the pact, it is easy to forget that the notion of asylum is premised upon the idea of not return­ing people to a coun­try where they face dan­gers. Yet at root, each aspect of the pact is char­ac­terised by an attempt to pre­vent, deter and return migrants reach­ing Europe’s shores.

The EU may have broken a dead­lock, but it has agreed a pact on migra­tion that cedes too much ground to nation­al­ist sen­ti­ment. The ter­mi­nol­o­gy used through­out resists emo­tion – migra­tion diplo­ma­cy, stream­lined pro­ce­dures, manda­to­ry sol­i­dar­i­ty. On a human level, it is hard not to be dis­ap­point­ed.

The Conversation

Romit Bhandari, Lecturer in Law, Coventry University

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters.

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