The majority of EU member states now understand migration issues as a serious threat to the cohesion of the European Union. Right-wing populists are growing in strength in the core states of the community, while other members already have the right sitting at the government table.
There are 103 million refugees worldwide. So many people have left their homes because they were forcibly displaced. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) includes in this total refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and other vulnerable people. The fact that the number of displaced people has skyrocketed in recent years has had noticeable consequences. Many host countries feel overwhelmed and it is becoming increasingly clear that the West is completely rethinking its asylum policy.
“Many protracted conflicts are not resolved. At the same time, new conflicts are emerging,” UNHCR says. In any case, most of the displaced people did not seek protection far away, but in the vicinity of a conflict region. The migration researcher Ruud Koopmans, with whom MENA Research Center was able to have a conversation, builds on this: “Anyone who wants to apply for asylum must first make their way to Europe,” he says. “Once you are in Europe, you stay. Even if you are not recognized as a refugee. That’s unfair. Because anyone who doesn’t manage to make the long journey to Europe is left out. So women, old people, sick people.” Koopmans therefore speaks of an “asylum lottery”. This is also the title of his recently published book.
The interior ministers of the EU have now put together a new package in Luxembourg, which could result in a rigid migration course. However, the proposals still have to pass the EU Parliament, which has an equal say. Parliament takes a softer position on several points. The aim is to adopt a legal text by the European elections in June 2024, which can then come into force in 2025. The Council of Member States has formally agreed on its position on two draft laws presented by the Commission, which the EU Parliament already did in March. The trilogue can now begin, i.e. the final round of negotiations between the three EU institutions. Nothing is likely to change in the main features of the asylum reform. But in details – families in fast track, for example – there should still be heated debates. An agreement should be reached by the end of the year.
Member states have been working on a reform for eight years. At the height of the refugee crisis, they decided on binding quotas to relieve Greece and Italy, but this was never properly implemented. In 2016 and then again in 2020, the Commission presented new bills. The aim was to balance the interests of the external border states and those states that, like Germany, are affected by secondary migration in such a way that a functioning overall system can emerge again, a balance of solidarity and responsibility. Every state looked for more favorable conditions for itself, few were willing to show real solidarity – but almost all wanted to tighten the rules to deter migrants without a right to asylum. Germany tried to oppose this to the end, but eventually caved in. Hungary and Poland voted against the decision, while Bulgaria, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia abstained.
The 27 interior ministers of the EU negotiated for twelve hours, and what drove the members of the group as a whole were two goals: reducing the number of refugees and achieving more fairness among the EU states. Critics complain that a third goal, a halfway humane admissions policy, was deliberately abandoned. The asylum rules of the European Union have been drastically tightened, it is now said. But what does that mean in concrete terms? What is at the heart of the compromise negotiated in Luxembourg? What changes and what stays the same?
Even before the meeting of interior ministers, it was questionable whether the governments could find a common line, the positions of Germany and Poland, for example, seemed to have been too different. In order to pass a binding decision, 55 percent of the member states, representing 65 percent of the population, had to agree. So Hungary and Poland alone could not block it. However, Italy was particularly important from the start: According to the general understanding, nothing could be decided without the consent of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, because Italy will be mainly affected by the new rules.
Two laws are now planned, which are described by the abbreviations APR (asylum procedure regulation) and AMMR (asylum and migration management regulation). The first law regulates the registration of refugees at the EU’s external borders. The second law aims to distribute asylum seekers across the individual EU states.
New border procedure
The new procedure is intended for those refugees who, according to the EU, come from safe countries of origin, for example from the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. One criterion for which persons the fast-track procedure should be applied to is the previous recognition rate for the respective country of origin. If it is less than 20 percent, the fast-track procedure should take effect. However, the new EU asylum rules are to be introduced in stages. Initially, according to reports from Brussels, 30,000 places are assumed to be available for fast-track procedures. This is only a small part of the people arriving in Europe. Just over 880,000 initial applications for asylum were made in the EU last year. The only exceptions are unaccompanied minors, not families with children. The procedure should be completed after twelve weeks, including an appeal against the decision. This is possible because many applications can be rejected as inadmissible.
The EU interior ministers in Brussels have not agreed on outsourcing the asylum procedure, but they have agreed on fast-track procedures at the external border for migrants with little chance of recognition. “Fair and efficient asylum procedures are generally central to any functioning asylum system,” says the UNHCR. “Efficient also means that things should be done quickly – both in the interests of those seeking protection and in the interests of the states.” But: “With the current EU plans to establish border procedures, it would be important that guarantees are observed. That there is a fair way to refute security presumptions. That there are fair counseling opportunities.”
During the border procedure, the applicants are to be housed in guarded and closed facilities so that they do not continue their journey illegally. A restriction of liberty is permissible, but no deprivation of liberty. If you want, you can travel to a country outside the EU at any time. During the stay, the persons are considered not to have entered the country. This in turn makes their deportation easier. If they are denied protection, they can be detained for a further three months under prison-like conditions until they are returned. After that, they must be granted entry.
All EU countries are to set up a total of 30,000 places for border procedures. The share of each individual is calculated from the average number of illegal entries and rejections over the past three years. Hungary, because of its location on the Western Balkans route, has around 8,500 places, Italy 6,200, Spain 3,500 and Greece 1,700 places. The aim is full utilization: If a procedure lasts three months, 120,000 people per year could be accommodated. Mediterranean countries insisted that the capacity be built up gradually: 30,000 people in the first year, 60,000 in the second, 90,000 in the third year after the regulation came into force, then 120,000. If the number is actually exceeded, the applicants will be included in the regular asylum procedure.
In fact, it is an open question where the fast-track procedures should take place. For example, where would Italy set up a center where migrants with little prospect of asylum would be housed for several weeks? How would the local population react? And how would NGOs and lawyers have access to these migrants? Especially since it should then be about conditions similar to detention. “One should never be detained for seeking asylum. When new people arrive and the identity check is carried out, that would be a typical reason for detention for a short time, but it always has to be proportionate. There are vulnerable groups that should be exempted from detention, such as children, obviously traumatized people. Detention can also only be permissible when alternatives to detention are not sufficient,” UNHCR said.
No obligation to accept asylum seekers
Solidarity is a duty, but not taking on people. States can instead pay 20,000 euros per person they don’t cover. This is more due to the lower limit of the real costs, but above the 10,000 euros that Austria and others wanted to push through in the negotiations. The money is intended to help the member state to be relieved by flowing into a fund managed by the EU Commission. That was particularly important to Italy – it doesn’t want to act as a supplicant. The details have yet to be worked out. In concrete terms, this means that the Commission can use its powers to collect overdue solidarity payments. This is important because Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have already indicated that they do not want to pay “penalties”.
Italy, Greece and Spain have to shoulder most of the asylum procedures, and little will change in the future. However, the southern EU countries have achieved an improvement: If the number of refugees increases so much that it is no longer possible to process the applications in an orderly manner, then the other EU countries will be obliged to help in the future. A number of people seeking protection, which is yet to be precisely determined, will be distributed across the entire EU using a key. Most recently, there was talk of 30,000 people a year. However, initially only Germany and France will probably accept significant contingents of asylum seekers.
There are countries like Poland and Hungary whose right-wing populist governments refuse to take in refugees on principle. Many other countries will first have to wait and see whether the number of incoming migrants will actually decrease as a result of the new procedures. You will first buy your way out of the obligation. An amount of around 20,000 euros per refugee is in discussion.
Responsibility of Member States
As a rule, asylum seekers who continue their journey can be returned to the responsible country within six months. Under certain circumstances, this period can be extended to a maximum of three years, or to one year for people who have been rescued from distress at sea. The transfer itself should be easier than before because people are recorded more precisely in a database. With proper registration, one glance is enough to determine which state is responsible and a quick application for takeover.
Rejection of migrants
Whoever asks for protection in the EU is entitled to an individual examination. However, the states want to shorten this by making agreements with safe third countries on the acceptance of migrants. The legal text that has now been adopted provides, as before, that there is a connection between the applicant and the third country concerned, which would make it “reasonable” to bring him there. What is new is that each member state can interpret what the connection consists of. An unspecified stay is sufficient, this could also be a transit. The asylum seeker can object to the rejection of his or her application, but this does not have a suspensive effect.
The EU is supposed to draw up a list of safe third countries, but member states can independently declare third countries as safe themselves. That’s how it’s been happening so far. Germany, for example, only lists Norway and Switzerland as safe third countries, Spain’s judiciary considers Morocco and most Latin American countries as such, Greece also considers Türkiye for refugees from Syria and other countries – despite fears that the Turkish authorities could ship them to their persecuting countries.
If the asylum application is rejected, the person in question should be deported – if possible within a further period of twelve weeks – directly from the camp. In the future, all available data should be recorded and stored centrally upon arrival in the EU, which is another important point of the agreement. The aim is to facilitate the return of rejected asylum seekers to suitable countries – the EU speaks of so-called safe third countries. Tunisia, for example, is under discussion as a possible third country. Its President Kaïs Saïed, however, recently drew attention to his agitation against African migrants in his country. Saïed said they were infiltrating his country and stripping Tunisia of its Arab identity.
What is new is that the EU is lowering the requirements by which third countries can be declared safe. In the future, this should also apply to parts of a country and to states that have not signed the Geneva Refugee Convention. Italy, for example, could, albeit by stretching the rules, declare parts of Libya a safe third country and send asylum seekers back there without examining the content of their applications. However, as before, the EU stipulates that there must be some link between the rejected asylum seeker and the country to which he is being sent back. The compromise envisages that the EU states can determine what the connection is – for example even a short-term transit.
Criticism of the resolutions
Non-governmental organizations are already warning of a crisis of humanity and human rights in view of the plans of the European Union. Amnesty International fears, for example, that it could become much more difficult for refugees to apply for asylum in the future.
Meanwhile, the refugee drama in the Mediterranean continues unabated. More recently, more people have attempted the extremely dangerous escape on boats. According to the Italian government, more than 50,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since January. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 980 people died during the crossing or have been missing since then. More people are coming to Europe by other routes as well. In Germany, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees received a good 100,000 initial asylum applications in the first four months of this year, which corresponds to an increase of almost 80 percent.
After the German rescue ship “Sea-Eye 4″ was arrested in Italy, the head of the operator organization criticized the authorities harshly. This is another reprehensible attempt to criminalize sea rescue and escape itself in order to justify increasingly brutal government action,” he says the German ship “Mare Go” was detained in the port of Lampedusa.
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