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9th May 2021

Juncker says mandatory distribution of asylum seekers not off table

  • In yet another incident that has seen the Mediterranean increasingly referred to as a 'graveyard, a fishing vessel on Wednesday capsized around 100km off the coast of Libya (Photo: Amnesty International Italy)

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has indicated he will revisit ideas for a mandatory distribution of asylum seekers among member states, while urging governments not to succumb to "populist" thinking on immigration.

"There are moments in politics when you must not follow the populists, otherwise you become populist yourself. You must say the opposite of what (the populists) say," Juncker told AFP in an interview on Wednesday (5 August).

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  • "There are moments in politics when you must not follow the populists, otherwise you become populist yourself"

His comments come as member states struggle to find a coherent response to the thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean each week from northern Africa to reach southern European states.

In yet another incident that has seen the Mediterranean increasingly referred to as a 'graveyard, a fishing vessel on Wednesday capsized around 100km off the coast of Libya, with about 200 people feared to have drowned.

The migration numbers have exposed the weaknesses in the EU's asylum policy - which obliges countries where migrants first land to process their asylum applications, putting a major burden on Italy and Greece - as well as showing the limits of European solidarity.

After years of hand-wringing but little policy action on matter, the Juncker Commission, in office since last autumn, promised it would tackle migration. It proposed in May a mandatory system to relocate 40,000 people from Greece and Italy around the EU.

However member states reacted angrily to both the numbers and it being decided in Brussels. A meeting of interior ministers last month saw governments, on a voluntary basis, agree to relocate just over 32,000 people, mainly Syrians and Eritreans.

"Ministers, unlike citizens, have an obligation to act. We made proposals that went far, while still being modest given the scale of the problem," Juncker said, referring to his proposals.

"We proposed a mandatory system to redistribute asylum seekers and people who need international protection, but the member states did not follow us and we are forced to seek an agreement on a voluntary basis," he said.

Juncker warned that if efforts after the summer break to reach the 40,000-target don't prove fruitful then the commission is likely to opt for an obligatory system.

"If we don't get there on a voluntary basis, we will have to reconsider the Commission's proposals. But I want to believe that they will react ambitiously," he said.

The commission has already said it wants to come forward with a more systematic set-up to deal with migration later this year.

"When the president was talking about the mechanism that we have on the table at the moment he was expressing his disappointment that we have gone through the voluntary route, if it works that’s very good," said a commission spokesperson on Wednesday.

"If it doesn’t then we do in any case have to look forward to the proposals that will be coming later in the year on future emergencies and how perhaps a redistribution key of an obligatory nature might be more appropriate," she added.

However the commission is setting itself up for a major political fight.

Member states are extremely reluctant to have a centralised system decide on how many migrants they ought to take, amid fears that voters will flock to support anti-immigrant right-wing parties.

Several member states want to close their borders to migrants.

Hungary recently began construction of a wall on its border with Serbia. Bulgaria has a wall along its border with Turkey. And the UK wants to reinforce barriers at Calais in northern France to prevent people crossing to England via the Eurotunnel.

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