EU announces new pact for migration and asylum

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson announces the new pact at a press conference on Wednesday. Credit: KEYSTONE/EPA POOL/STEPHANIE LECOCQ / POOL

The new pact is intended to help countries reach a unanimous agreement on migration and asylum.

The European Union (EU) announced a new pact for migration and asylum on Wednesday, in a long-anticipated move intended to reach a unanimous agreement across the bloc on how to respond to refugees and asylum seekers.

All 27 member states would be required to take part in the pact, which is backed by Germany. Under the terms, countries would agree to either take in asylum seekers or take charge of sending back those refused asylum.

In an address to the European Commission, President Ursula von der Leyen cited the recent fires at Moria camp on Lesbos, Greece, as “a stark reminder” of the need to “find sustainable solutions” for resettlement and asylum procedures.

More than 12,500 refugees and asylum seekers were left without shelter following the blaze that flattened Moria camp at the start of this month, leading to protests both on Lesbos and across cities in Europe calling on governments to take in people from Greece.

Countries such as Germany and France have responded, with Germany committing to take in more than 1,500 people in addition to the 150 unaccompanied minors it had already resettled. However, there has been a lack of a coordinated response across the bloc.

Why now? The pact comes after years of disagreement over how to cope with refugees and asylum seekers arriving in countries such as Greece and Italy, who have accused northern countries of not doing enough to support them.

Speaking to Geneva Solutions ahead of the announcement, Katleen Maes, senior policy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the pact comes in response to strong calls for “responsibility sharing”.

“There's a recognition that what should have been a temporary solution with the camp and the situation on Lesbos and the other Greek islands has carried on for too long, and it’s been in part because of the EU's inability to come to an agreement on migration and how to deal with flows of people,” said Maes.

“[If a] division of responsibilities is agreed among all the EU member states, plus Switzerland, Norway and some other countries, the scale and the absorption capacity should all of a sudden become larger and better regulated,” she added.

What is the pact? The pact proposes “fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity between member states while providing certainty for individual applicants”. Countries would have “flexible options” over how to take part, choosing from the following:

  • Taking in recent arrivals.

  • “Sponsoring” returns. Ensuring, on behalf of other states, people refused asylum are sent back.

  • Immediate operational support, including “longer-term support to build capacity on asylum procedures, reception of newcomers or return operations, or assistance in responding to specific migratory trends affecting member states through cooperation with non-EU countries”.

Each country would be legally required to contribute their "fair share", which will be based half on the country's GDP and half on population size.

The pact also includes compulsory health, identity and security checks for people arriving in member states and a faster asylum border process, with decisions regarding asylum made in 12 weeks.

How has it been received? Speaking ahead of the announcement, commissioner Ylva Johansson, who played a key role in drafting the pact, said that there would be “no more Morias” under the new proposals, and Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas called it a “fresh beginning” in the press briefing on Wednesday.

However, it has been met with criticism from human rights groups, who have questioned whether the emphasis on speeding up the asylum process will lead to unfair denials . In a statement, Eve Geddie, Amnesty International's EU advocacy director, said the pact would “do nothing to alleviate the suffering of thousands of people stuck in camps on the Greek islands”.

“Pitched as a fresh start, this pact is, in reality, designed to heighten walls and strengthen fences. Rather than offering any new approach to facilitate bringing people to safety, this appears to be an attempt to rebrand a system which has been failing for years, with dire consequences. ”- Eve Geddie.

Furthermore, as the pact will now have to be negotiated in the European parliament and by member states, it is unlikely it will be agreed upon in the near future.

In the meantime, around 9,000 people have been moved into a temporary camp on Lesbos, where over 240 new cases of Covid-19 have been detected in the past few days. Following protests across Europe in which citizens have requested immediate action to take in asylum seekers and refugees, it remains unclear which countries will rise to meet the need.

For more coverage on the pact: 'No more Morias': New EU migration policy met with scepticism