In September 2020, the European Commission finally presented its New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The proposals were supposed to inject much-needed momentum into the reform of the European asylum system, which the Council has delayed for too long. But again, we see that Member States maintain well-known positions to block even the slightest progress and are unable to come to a decision.
For us Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, one thing was clear from the beginning: the reform must address migration challenges in a way based on solidarity. We need to move away from the criteria of country of first entry that affects Member States at the external borders of the EU disproportionately.
Moreover, a proper relocation mechanism is necessary. We must show solidarity with Member States, their local citizens and not least with the vulnerable people, who are in need of our protection. This is our duty, based on our European values and treaties.
Yet, we are not only missing momentum in the Council. The New Pact also draws the wrong conclusions from past errors. Instead of moving towards more solidarity and a collective approach, the proposals go the other way. They try to please Member States who, in their mission to reject any humanity and solidarity in European migration policy, are even willing to break European law.
The Commission also puts a heavy emphasis on increasing the number of returns. While the efficiency and sustainability of returns needs to be improved, based on sustainable cooperation with the countries of origin, lowering the standards of the classification of which countries are considered safe cannot be the solution. Returns must be conducted in respect of the principle of non-refoulement. A robust and mandatory relocation mechanism could support countries of first arrival.
The destruction of the refugee camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos and the inhumane conditions that prevailed in this camp for a long time should have been the last straw in highlighting what the Fundamental Rights Agency calls the “single most worrying fundamental rights issue” in the EU. A change of mind should have followed.
Instead, the proposals of the Commission call for even more detention, more camps at the external borders, and screening and border procedures that limit the fundamental rights of asylum applicants.
Screening and border procedures are designed to prevent entry into the EU by upholding the legal fiction of non-entry, during which people are de facto on EU territory but are de jure treated as if they have not entered. This would apply to many people fleeing from war, persecution, and torture. The objective is to prevent people from even trying to come to Europe.
The screening, which includes health, identification and security checks, would irreversibly affect their application for international protection by determining whether a person is subject to a border procedure. However, the short timeframe of just five days for the screening risks that a decision is based on incomplete or inaccurate data.
Moreover, the proposals include no legal remedies against the outcome of the screening. This makes the possibility of working with inaccurate data even more worrying since decisions made on inaccurate information and without access to judicial review pose a serious risk to fundamental rights.
During a border procedure, the applicants would be detained, and their application processed in an accelerated procedure, assuming that it has little chance of success anyway. For countries of first entry, both screening and border procedures would mean substantial additional responsibilities. Meanwhile, solidarity measures remain vague and to be used only in situations of increased pressure or crisis.
What is more, even with this diffuse and temporary solidarity, Member States can still cherry-pick measures with little regard to the necessity on the ground. This solidarity à la carte gives governments the chance to praise their own engagement and solidarity, when in reality it is anything but.
The answer, therefore, cannot be to continue on this path of deterrence to prevent people from coming here. The continuation of tragic deaths in the Mediterranean over the past years has shown that people will continue to flee from desperation and violence, even at the risk of their own life.
We need an asylum system built on solidarity for Member States and refugees alike as well as on the respect for fundamental rights. We cannot afford to leave this collective task only to the few Member States that happen to be at the EU’s external borders.
To reduce irregular migration, we need to combine real solidarity with strengthened and expanded legal avenues both for people seeking international protection and for people looking for employment. A first step should be the conclusion of the Blue Card reform that simplifies the conditions for entry and residence for highly skilled third country nationals. The Commission must find the courage to be far more ambitious than with the New Pact when presenting proposals for legal migration.
Despite all the shortcomings of the New Pact, we Socialists and Democrats are ready to continue the reform and shape it in a humane way, while defending our values. We must be determined to prevent a second, third or fourth Moria.
This goes beyond questions of migration and asylum. Because if we give up humanity and fundamental rights when dealing with people seeking protection – what are our values, which are supposed to protect us all, worth at all?
- Municipalities as main players in EU asylum policy, by Gesine Schwan