The European Union’s New Pact on Migration

17 July, 2020

While media, scholars and news outlets have been focused on covering the COVID-19 pandemic, global crises and conflicts have continued. One prominent crisis that has been illuminated by the global pandemic is that of migrants and asylum seekers. In Europe, this illumination is one that comes from the shortcomings that have been exposed in the European Union’s migration and asylum policies.

The European Union’s New Pact on Asylum and Migration was supposed to be adopted within the first quarter of 2020, however due to the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic this has been pushed to the second quarter of 2020. The Pact became a new priority for the European Commission following the so-called migration crisis in 2015 when an unprecedented number of people fled from conflict areas such as Syria, which resulted in nearly 1.2 million asylum seekers in the EU. This surge of asylum seekers and migrants shook the “European immigration and asylum policy to the point that the EU’s fundamental values of the respect of Human Rights and ‘burden sharing’ have been challenged”.  Failures and shortcomings of past treaties and pacts have not only challenged the European Union’s migration and asylum policies but have also challenged the idea of European solidarity and trust between member states. The call for a New Pact has been in the works for quite some time to answer the problems and shortcomings that were highlighted in the wake of the migration humanitarian crises from 2015 and on. In fact, in May of 2016, the European Commission proposed a reformation of the current Dublin system, however Member States had been unable to agree on how to move forward with reformation.

Call for a new start

Many civil society organizations co-signed a statement together with Caritas Europa, asking for the New Pact to be a “fresh start”, hoping to reorient migration policies with stronger emphasis on the respect for human rights and dignity. Additionally, they call for enhanced compliance within existing asylum law, as opposed to introducing new damaging legislations. Increased harmonization among EU member states, improved reception conditions, guaranteed access to registration and proper procedure, as well as humane treatment of asylum seekers and migrants have also been highlighted as key demands by Caritas Europa. Moreover, they see the new Pact as an opportunity for the EU and its Member States to further their commitments made within the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. As the European Union and the global community move forward on improving migration policy, the stress is added upon the principles of human treatment for all asylum seekers and migrants. The statement sent by Caritas Europa and their co-signers, makes a valid and very relevant call for change within current EU migration policy.

Additionally, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR has also welcomed the European Commission’s plan on developing a new Pact on Migration and Asylum. With that they provided key recommendations for the future of the pact, including but not limited to the need for developing sustainable asylum systems, providing needs-based support for humanitarian operations, expanding opportunities for safe pathways, protecting asylum seekers, prioritizing family reunion and human systems for return, and increase funding and assistance in integrations programs to assist migrants and asylum seekers.

Member States themselves have also voiced their recommendations and concerns in regard to the New Pact. Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria have asked for an “emergency and flexibility clause” to be included to reinforce the front line states’ capacity to effectively tackle exceptional migration circumstances, and to use preventative response mechanisms in the face of potential migration crises. These are exceptionally important concerns by these states as they not only protect their own national borders, but also the overall European Union’s external borders

The New Pact will look to strengthen the right to asylum, while also increasing cooperation and strengthening relationships with third party countries in regard to migration. While these are all important and much needed ideas in theory, they will be difficult for the Commission to meet in light of divisions and conflicting opinions among Member States. Most member states share the opinion of prioritizing return and strengthening external borders, a consensus that threatens the ambitious humanitarian aspect of the New Pact. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only postponed the publication of the New Pact delaying its release with very little insight on concrete ideas and details, it has also allowed for Member States to seize the opportunity to close their borders, internally and externally. The pandemic has highlighted grave weaknesses in the European Union’s migration policy. Many migrants and asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable and susceptible to the virus given their living situations and conditions in refugee camps and asylum centres, or due to lack of governmental support. However, these weaknesses extend beyond the physical locations of migrants who remain in camps or centres without freedom of movement, lack of hygiene, and lack of economic, medicinal, or educational opportunities. It includes internal weaknesses within the structure of the European Union itself, especially as the call for solidarity is pitted against the individuality of Member States as they each approach the coronavirus pandemic in their own way. Such weaknesses can have far reaching implications in regard to the socio-economic opportunities for migrants, especially during a pandemic like this. These are therefore some areas in which EU migration policy need to be strengthened; from the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers within certain EU states, to the management of EU’s external borders, all while addressing the solidarity deficit caused by current internal divisions.

Struggles that remain

The migrant crisis of 2015, and the subsequent catastrophes regarding migrants and asylum seekers in the Mediterranean fleeing from conflict zones such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, and recently migrant’s situation during the COVID-19 pandemic, have all hinted on a flaw in the EU system when it comes to ensuring that the dignity of the human person is respected as they migrate or seek asylum. Moving forward, the New Pact should not only ensure the respect for human rights as it pertains to migrants and asylum seekers, but there should be added emphasis on creating stronger legal routes for migration by way of bilateral temporary labour agreements, creating incentives for local civil society to hold integration courses, and mainstreaming migration in development policy agendas.

The current weaknesses and disagreements create a threatening atmosphere for the New Pact to properly deliver a policy that is not only accepted by all Member States, but also lives up to the humanitarian challenges that lie ahead. It is important for the European Union to work to settle these disagreements and internal conflicts if they want to be able to create a proper framework; it will call for some much needed ‘internal soul-searching’ by the Union and Member States. More importantly they will need to realign their priorities and the Pact to include the very values that the EU was founded upon; the rule of law and human rights. This calls for stronger focus on what is actually happening inside of Europe, and to refrain from externalizing these responsibilities to third-party countries that actually undermine the rule of law and human rights. As the New Pact on Migration and Asylum is part of the “Promoting our European Way of Life” agenda in the European Commissions’ Work Programme for 2020, they will have to work on upholding those European values and ‘way of life’ and aligning such values with the current reality of the lives of migrants and asylum seekers.

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