Brussels unveils plan to share responsibility for migrants

By: AFP      Published: 06:57 PM, 23 Sep, 2020
Brussels unveils plan to share responsibility for migrants

The European Commission launched an effort Wednesday to rally sceptical member states around a plan to better share responsibility for settling refugees and sending rejected asylum seekers home.

The long-awaited proposal for a "New Pact on Migration and Asylum" comes two weeks after a devastating fire in an overcrowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, and five years after Europe's last major migrant crisis.

It proposes that EU member states that do not want to volunteer to house more migrants -- and reduce pressure on Italy and Greece, where most arrivals land -- can instead take charge of sending those whose asylum requests are rejected back to their homelands.

"We want to live up to our values, and at the same time face the challenges of a globalised world," the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said, warning that the old system "no longer works".

The proposal disappointed migrants' rights activists and refugee agencies, who had hoped for compulsory quotas for refugee settlement and an end to a "Fortress Europe" ringed by squalid refugee camps. 

"It's a compromise between xenophobia and cowardice," tweeted Francois Gemenne, Belgian migration expert and professor of environmental geopolitics.  

But the plan is likely to face a rough reception in national capitals, many of which are reluctant to take charge of large numbers of refugees on their own soil and keen to see the EU take ownership of the problem.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told AFP this week that mandatory quotas for refugees for all EU countries "won't work", and Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also oppose compulsory relocation, having torpedoed such plans after the 2015 migration crisis.

But von der Leyen had promised another ambitious plan -- with an accelerated process to remove migrants who are unlikely to obtain protection. 

"We need to focus more on returns and that's why you can see our package today has new initiatives when it comes to be more effective on returns," said European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.

Those from countries with a lower than 20 percent positive response rate to asylum applications, such as Tunisia or Morocco, will be processed at the border and within 12 weeks. 

Frontline countries under excessive migratory pressure such as Italy and Malta can request the activation of a "compulsory solidarity mechanism" by the Commission. 

All states will then be called on to contribute, according to their economic weight and population, but they will be able to choose whether to receive asylum seekers, "sponsor" the return of migrants who do not have the right to stay or help to build reception centres. 

'Long live Dublin' 

In the event of a crisis similar to that in 2015 -- when more than a million refugees arrived, compared with only 140,000 per year now -- the choice will be reduced to taking charge of relocating refugees or repatriating rejected migrants

But if an EU country fails to return migrants to their country of origin within eight months, it must take them in -- an idea that a European source admitted would be hard for smaller countries to accept.

Von der Leyen said last week the proposal would replace the "Dublin Regulation" with "a new European migration governance system" -- but the plans unveiled on Wednesday stick pretty closely to the status quo.

The Dublin Regulation states that asylum claims must be processed by the migrant's country of arrival, a rule that has led to bitter squabbles between the southern coastal member states where seaborne migrants arrive, and wealthier northern countries where most prefer to head.

In the Commission's proposal, the country responsible for the application could be the one where a migrant has a relative or where he or she has worked or studied. Any country that issued a visa to a migrant will have to handle any asylum application.

Otherwise, however, the country of arrival is still responsible. 

EU Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas said: "Currently, the only obligation is for a member state to take the fingerprints of someone who arrives irregularly and simply registers. 

"Under the new pact all arrivals will be subject to a thorough security health and identity check."

Observers said the plan as unveiled maintains more or less the same principle as Dublin, with some flexibility. 

"It all looks like window dressing, it's more or less Dublin is dead, long live Dublin," said migration researcher Yves Pascouau of the Jacques Delors Institute.

Marissa Ryan of aid agency Oxfam said the plan "bowed to pressure from EU governments whose only objective is to decrease the number of people granted protection in Europe."