One year after the EU migration pact, a better future for refugees?


An opinion by Damian Boeselager, Greens/EFA MEP

The 23rd of September marks one year since the European Commission published its proposals for a new Pact on Migration and Asylum. The Pact came at a difficult time: only two weeks earlier, fires had completely destroyed the notorious Moria camp on Lesbos, leaving 12,000 asylum-seekers homeless overnight. The need for a ‘fresh start on migration’, as the Pact was hailed by the Commission, and for a proposal that could resolve the deadlock on previous attempts at reform could not have been clearer.

Samos Camp ©MSF/Dora Vangi

However, as we take stock of the current situation and whether progress has been achieved one year later, we do not see much cause for celebration. After carefully analysing the Pact’s proposal, I find this far from a ‘fresh start’. What we are looking at is a proposed codification and even expansion of the same deterrent and containment policies that have continuously resulted in human suffering.

Instead of working towards meaningful solidarity and showing willingness to find a compromise, EU Member States and the Council continue to erect barriers for asylum seekers, externalise the processing of claims and disregard fundamental protection obligations.

The EU’s disastrous approach to asylum

The 12 months following the publication of the Pact have been particularly eventful and have painfully highlighted the shortcomings in the EU’s approach on asylum. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the already inhumane and undignified conditions faced by asylum-seekers on the Greek islands. Little has been done to address the acute overcrowding and lack of healthcare, access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene products to limit the spread of the COVID-19 in camps. Such conditions made it unrealistic for people to maintain social distancing. Instead, the government’s measures included strict limits on leaving camps other than for buying food and other necessities, which had a significant impact on mental health.

A migrant stands near tents as a fire burns in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos on September 9, 2020. (Photo by Manolis LAGOUTARIS / AFP) (Photo by MANOLIS LAGOUTARIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Over this year, the EU’s asylum and migration policy degenerated into national efforts to prevent people from entering the EU and isolate them upon their arrival. Ongoing reports of pushbacks through any means, including by using sound cannons, constructing floating walls and fences, building detention centres, and outsourcing asylum applications to countries far away from Europe have become the norm in several members of the European bloc. Despite a few initial but shy pledges to relocate refugees from the Greek islands to other EU States, the solidarity and relocation mechanism between Member States has since completely stalled. Furthermore, with the designation by Greece of Turkey as a safe third country for certain nationalities of asylum-seekers, protection is being denied to a majority of those who manage to arrive, putting them in a disastrous state of limbo.

Then, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan again focused attention on the EU’s approach to asylum and migration. A recent statement published by EU Ministers of Interior is a testimony to Member States’ disproportionate focus on security concerns, their disregard for taking up responsibility and the absence of clear and meaningful commitments to offer Afghans the protection they need. In their statement, EU Ministers have failed to offer safe and regular pathways for asylum-seekers to seek protection in the EU, including stepping up resettlement pledges, issuing humanitarian visas, and opening humanitarian corridors. On 7 October, Member States will participate at a High-Level Resettlement Forum on Afghanistan, which will demonstrate the extent of commitment Member States have to provide protection for those in need. 

In the meantime, EU funding has disproportionately served to construct closed facilities and strengthen external borders. EU agencies and emergency funding have been mobilised to assist EU countries bordering Belarus to strengthen border control and prevent Afghan and Iraqi asylum-seekers from accessing asylum procedures. Furthermore, the EU’s €38 million new multi-purpose reception and identification centre in Samos became operational this week. Despite its sports facilities, the new centre installed with military-graded fences and barbed wires, surveilled by police, and located in a remote area of the island, reminds more of a prison rather than a centre to host those who seek asylum. The EU and Member States’ actions and funding, therefore, send a strong signal: we will make it very hard for asylum-seekers to reach the EU’s external borders and those who do will be strictly controlled with their liberties severely restricted.

Samos Camp ©MSF/Dora Vangi

Old wine in new bottles: Why the Migration Pact cannot be the solution

What has not happened is a corresponding shift in mindset by the Commission and Council, who continue to insist on the Pact proposals as the only way forward. However, the current proposals do not provide the solution needed to build a fair, effective and humane asylum policy in the EU.

In light of the developments at the EU’s borders and beyond, and thanks to a comprehensive European Parliament impact assessment, it has become even more clear that the Pact’s proposals are redundant and very likely ineffective in addressing migration realities on the ground. Overall, the Pact’s approach to asylum is diminishing in humanity, following the same containment and deterrence by suffering policy. It is also clear that the current set of proposals fail to address the challenges southern Member States face.

Despite being hailed as the “new” Migration Pact, the Pact’s proposals are based on old failed ideas, including the principle of first-entry, mandatory border procedures and the fiction of non-entry. Furthermore, the Pact does not propose a way out of the current deadlock in solidarity, but rather creates further loopholes for Member States to avoid sharing responsibility. The new proposed solidarity mechanism expands the notion of solidarity to include return sponsorships (i.e. financial solidarity to return asylum-seekers to third countries) and capacity-building. The complexity and lack of solidarity commitment in the new mechanism bears the question on whether it is workable in practice. Finally, it includes a proposal on mechanism for crisis and force majeure, which instead of introducing new ideas of how to cope with large number of arrivals, focuses on derogations that will further exacerbate the already vulnerable situation of asylum-seekers and refugees, create additional pressure on the first-entry Member States, and undermine solidarity in the EU. 

Should the Pact be implemented as it is currently proposed, we expect even more asylum-seekers stuck in frontline Member States, for longer periods and under even more restrictive conditions. This would mean the failure to create a system that would both alleviate the already existing pressure on the Member States of first-entry and provide the necessary and meaningful protection to displaced people who have arrived in the EU.

Solutions for the EU Migration Pact – What needs to change?

Six years ago, the European Union descended into in-fighting over how to fairly distribute asylum-seekers arriving from Syria. Back then, officials vowed to reform the EU’s asylum policy, particularly the solidarity framework in the Dublin system. However, that has failed, leaving Europe unprepared. As the Taliban seized Afghanistan, the EU was ready to securitise its borders and make sure that the debate doesn’t go as far as the need to distribute asylum-seekers.

The EU’s lack of response to offer protection and dignified treatment to asylum-seekers and refugees trapped in Europe and beyond are the fatal consequences of the EU’s deterrence and containment policy. Any reform of the Common European Asylum System must avoid replicating the failures of the so-called hotspot approach on the Greek islands and avoid that people are trapped in overcrowded centres at the borders and are not offered the protection needed. In the upcoming negotiations on the Pact, our Group will fight for the following priorities to be included:

  • Simplified procedures for manifestly well-founded claims

To provide better access and services to asylum-seekers and to reach the objective of a functioning asylum system, a simplified procedure should be introduced for the examination of manifestly well-founded applications, which would be without prejudice to an individualised refugee status determination and the rights of asylum applicants guaranteed by the EU and international law. This would help process claims in an efficient and fair way, without reducing procedural safeguards for people based on arbitrary factors such as recognition rates, which vary greatly between Member States and are based on questionable statistics.

  • Voluntary solidarity followed by solidarity by all
The Europe Welcomes map shows thousands of welcoming initiatives and pledges from citizens, cities and municipalities

In stark contrast with governments’ eagerness to build fences and protect borders, hundreds of European municipalities and cities across Europe have expressed their will and readiness to welcome asylum-seekers and refugees. Our “Europe Welcomes” map and campaign shows that over 1000 cities have demanded their national governments to act and show solidarity with asylum-seekers trapped on the Greek islands and beyond. We propose an immediate and automatic relocation, based on first willingness of cities and regions to welcome refugees, followed by mandatory relocation if necessary.

Voluntary solidarity requires positive incentives which would meet the interests of host countries and municipalities. The EU’s funds should be used to provide financial incentives and support for municipalities and regions who receive asylum-seekers through the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and other financial instruments, including a European Integration and Development Fund. If voluntary pledges fall short, solidarity by all should kick in, meaning that all Member States would be obliged to deliver on solidarity. Member States fundamentally opposed to receiving asylum seekers could instead contribute financially by covering the costs of the Member States taking asylum seekers. In this way, the incentives for relocation would be co-financed by those who oppose refugee protection in Europe for principled reasons. 

  • On preferences of applicants

Asylum seekers are human beings, not numbers. Ensuring asylum-seekers’ agency by taking their preferences and links to a particular Member States, to the greatest extent possible, is key for a humane and efficient asylum system. By doing so, the system will enhance their prospects of integration and reduce irregular movements of asylum seekers from one Member State to another in a non-coercive manner. Examples of such links include family relations, community links and language knowledge.

The Greens/EFA Group strongly reject the idea of introducing some kind of ‘randomizer’ to determine the Member State responsible for an asylum seeker. No asylum-seeker should be relocated against their will. The consent of an asylum-seeker to move to a Member State is crucial for respecting human dignity and preventing irregular movements.

Show solidarity and take action: place your city on the Europe Welcomes map, ask your municipality to welcome refugees & asylum seekers and engage with NGO’s initiatives! 


Author: Damian Boeselager, Greens/EFA MEP

More information:
Nina Walch – Rights and Democracy Campaigner