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27th Feb 2024

New EU political deal on asylum alarms rights activists

  • Margaritis Schinas, vice-president of the European Commission: 'Moria is the reason we are developing this system' (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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A political agreement on the EU-wide asylum reforms was finally reached on Wednesday (20 December), following years of debates.

While hailed as a major breakthrough by some observers, the five bills that make up the core of the pact on migration and asylum have also drawn intense criticism from rights defenders.

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  • The five core files in the EU's asylum pact are part of a larger assembly of reforms (Photo: European Union, 2023)

"Moria is the reason we are developing this system," Margaritis Schinas, vice-president of the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.

Moria was a sprawling ghetto-like refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos that burned down late 2020. Schinas described it as shame on Europe.

But Moria was also a so-called hotspot, a European Commission concept conceived in April 2015 for funnelling and channelling arriving people, that has since been abandoned.

Critics of the latest reforms are warning that the proposals will see similar detention-like centres mushroom as people with little chance of asylum are shuffled into a supposedly fast track 12-week procedure.

"It will lead to systematising the detention of children of all ages at EU borders, and undermine their fair access to asylum across the continent," responded Save the Children, an NGO, in a statement.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a Brussels-based NGO, described the pact as "Byzantine in complexity and Orban-esque in cruelty to refugees."

The basic plan is to first identify everyone arriving at an external EU border during a several day screening procedure where people are placed in a legal limbo, a so-called legal fiction of non-entry.

Those with what are deemed legitimate claims will then have access to a normal asylum procedure.

Everyone else, including nationalities with less than a 20 percent successful asylum rate in the EU, are placed into a separate fast track border procedure.

The final details have yet to be published for closer scrutiny.

But key concepts surrounding so-called solidarity (ie non frontline EU member states helping those mainly Mediterranean countries that see the most arrivals) that killed previous European Commission asylum reforms have since downgraded the importance given to relocations — where arriving asylum seekers are distributed among EU states.

Instead, Wednesday's agreement creates a secret solidarity pool where EU states offer contributions, based on their population size and GDP.

This includes at least 30,000 annual relocations and a €600m in financial contributions.

A percentage of those contributions will be dedicated to search and rescues, said Tomas Tobe, a Swedish centre-right MEP, and lead MEP on the asylum and migration management regulation.

"This will mean a lot for many countries and specifically I would like to mention Italy," he said.

European elections

The whole comes in the context of European elections next June, fears of sweeping gains by the far-right, as well as mounting pressure to cut various deals with countries of origin and transit to curtail arrivals.

And the pact has been billed by the European Commission as a solution to the all the problems facing EU states, including on-going internal EU border controls that threaten the passport-free Schengen zone.

"Member states on our external borders need to manage illegal migration — often challenging their border protection," said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, in a statement.

Her statement points to hostile states like Belarus and Russia who have been blamed for enticing prospective asylum seekers to cross their land borders into neighbouring EU states in an effort to stoke chaos — dubbed 'instrumentalisation'.

The concept to counter instrumentalisation has since been coded into the asylum pact, following concessions from the European Parliament, amid claims it could lead to collective pushbacks.

"The instrumentalisation regulation is the idea that you allow states to avoid their legal obligations," said Catherine Woollard, executive director at ECRE, earlier this month.

She also described it as a nail in the coffin of an any future common European asylum system.

But Juan Fernando López Aguilar, a Spanish socialist MEP who was leading talks on one of the five bills, said such compromises were necessary.

"This is what playing the European game is about. No one is on its own," he told reporters.

The political agreement still requires a formal ratification from the European Parliament and the council, representing member states, before it can become law.

A majority is already said to be secured among the three biggest European Parliament parties; the centre-left (Socialists & Democrats), centre-right European People's Party (EPP), and the liberal Renew Europe.

The Greens and the Left remain opposed.

Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian MEP who chairs the Greens, said the agreement will undermine the right to asylum, international law and human rights.

Cornelia Ernst, a German Left MEP, described it as a rightwing populist dream-come-true.

"Instead of relocating people, the member states can finance projects in third countries or provide funds for border surveillance, such as barbed wire within the EU," she said, in a statement.

The five core files include the asylum and migration management regulation (RAMM), the crisis and 'force majeure' regulation, screening regulation, asylum procedures regulation, and Eurodac.

But the pact as a whole also includes other files that could take up to two years to implement.

Among them is the returns directive, where an agreement appears increasingly unlikely under the current mandate — which ends with the June 2024 elections.

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