The New Pact on Migration: a real change or a hidden preservation of the past approach?

30 September, 2020

“So let’s stop talking it down, and let’s get to work for it. […] Let’s build the world we want to live in. Long live Europe!” With these words, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen closed her speech on the State of the Union held on the 16th September 2020. In this speech, the President announced the forthcoming release of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which has been presented, after a long delay due to the Covid-19 emergency, on the 23rd September 2020. A few days after the terrible fire that destroyed the Moria refugee camp, this pact wants to represent “a fresh start on migration in Europe”, highlighting how complex the migratory phenomenon is and how badly the current management system works.

The content of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum

In her last week’s speech, the President of the European Commission suggested to adopt a new approach to migration, which includes both the supervision on the rule of law and the creation of a union where racism and discrimination are set aside and punished to make room for hospitality and help. As she underlined, migration has always been part of the history of the European Union and, throughout the centuries, it has shaped the life of the Union and of its citizens. Even though the member states of the Union have suffered for great migration crises, such as the 2015 one, if they start to work together, and they ready to make compromises, they could find a common solution. The Commission has presented the New Pact on Migration, in which it has announced a “human and humane approach” to migration. Based on a holistic assessment, the Commission has suggested a fresh start on migration: “building confidence through more effective procedures and striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity”.

The New Pact aims at overtaking the Dublin Regulation, which nowadays represents one of the biggest challenges for the management of migration in the European Union. On the one hand, the new system wants to relieve countries at the European external borders, such as Italy and Greece, from the strong migratory pressure resulting from the arrival of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. On the other, it seeks to reassure other EU Member States on the respect of procedures in border countries, thus ensuring that their systems of asylum, integration and return of migrants could properly function. However, the tools that the Commission has chosen to achieve its aims are problematic. The central points of the proposal concern the strengthening of the external borders, the improvement of return programmes, new agreements with the origin and transit countries and a “sponsored return mechanism”, which should replace the old criterion of compulsory allocations. This approach does not seem to give much space to solidarity, as instruments to welcome and support migrants are not contemplated: reinforcing controls and limiting the entrances in the Union do not resolve the usual knots, like the great pressure on the border countries, which remain in this way unsolved.

Margaritis Schinas, the Vice-President of the European Commission, has described the New Pact as a three-storey building. The first floor is represented by the “external dimension”, which becomes powerful thanks to new agreements with origin and transit countries. This section is crucial to support people in their origin countries and create strong relationships with them. The second storey concerns the “solid screening system” to be implemented at the EU external border with a reformed European border and coast guard, which will have many more personnel, boats and equipment. The new compulsory pre-entry screening comprehends identification, health checks, security checks, fingerprinting and registration in the Eurodac database. The reinforcement of the identification procedures is a key aspect in order to avoid the chaos of the current system. The upper floor consists instead of a new strict but fair solidarity mechanism among EU member states. The pact provides indeed for the introduction of a system of “sponsored returns” for refugees arriving in Europe. It stipulates, for those countries that refuse to accept asylum seekers, to take charge of the return in the origin country of those who cannot stay. The countries where migrants arrive for the first time, which under the Dublin Regulation are in charge of their management, will be reassured by the fact that each country will have to take care of the same number as they were entitled to under the relocation programme. The proposal does not impose the compulsory relocations of migrants, which followed the principle of “share the burden”, but it imposes Member States to make an effort to “rebuild trust” and achieve the “right balance between solidarity and responsibility”.

In addition, the new system stipulates that a state of the European Union may request the Commission’s intervention for three reasons: migratory pressure or prediction of it, serious migratory crisis or disembarkation of people rescued at sea. The Commission will then be obliged to intervene in support of the government that asked for help. However, the 27 countries of the Union will have the possibility to choose how to intervene to support this country. Firstly, they could offer reception to a certain number of asylum seekers who have arrived in the border country. Secondly, they could join what has been defined as a “return sponsorship” programme, namely they will finance the returns that will be carried out by the border country. Lastly, states could offer operational, technical and personal support to the border management of the country in need, by transferring to it money.

The major shortcomings of this approach

The members of the Commission themselves have admitted that this is by no means a perfect proposal, but only an attempt to mediate between different states and create a better and more efficient system for all. However, the New Pacts show several weaknesses. Endless actors of civil society, numerous NGOs and migration experts have strongly criticized it because it does not represent an innovative and decisive solution to the problem and it does not meet the expectations. The approach is indeed essentially the same as before. It sees the strengthening of the borders and of the repatriation mechanisms as the only solution to contain the migratory phenomenon. The countries at the European external border must adopt faster procedures for examining the request of asylum, and they have only 5 days to decide who can ask for it or who must be repatriated. This will imply the adoption of a “safe states” list, on which there is no agreement within the EU, thus categorizing migrants coming from some countries as possible subjects for repatriation. In this way, the Dublin system is not fully overtaken. In addition, there are nor compulsory relocation quotas for asylum seekers within the European Union neither sanctions for countries that do not adhere to the system.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has also criticized the content of the New Pact, highlighting, among the other things, that the arrival of refugees can trigger positive social and economic change. This approach must lead to a more deep and comprehensive system of welcoming and integrating migrants, and in particular refugees, putting solidarity first and renewing European fidelity to the fundamental principles underpinning the right of asylum.


The most recurring words in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum are “borders” and “repatriations”, the former to be managed and latter to be increased. The European Union seems thereby supportive to contain arrivals and even more efficient in repulsions. Even though the premise was courageous, namely that to address an epochal and complex phenomenon, the proposal seems not to be capable of giving concrete and satisfactory solutions.

If this pact is approved by the European Parliament and the Council, the burden of migration will continue to be left on the border countries. In a European Union where solidarity is lacking, the only important point seems to be the reduction of irregular arrivals and the increase of repatriation. The recent proposals are confirmed in full continuity with the choices of the past. Brussels seems to have renounced to the adoption of a sharing mechanism, and it has decided to invest all its resources in closure policies, like strengthening borders and agreements with third countries. As long as national interests prevail over human lives, European states will never be able to create a structured reception system, that does not affect only few countries and does not lead to hasty expulsions and insufficient procedures. Only when immigration will no longer be seen as a burden but as an important opportunity for growth and exchange for all the actors involved, Europe will really be able to be innovative, but also mindful of its values, in this regard.

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