In September 2020, the European Commission (EC) launched the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. The Pact is a long-awaited revision of the system that had previously governed the EU’s response to migration.
The Pact has two particularly prominent features. One is the expansion of Frontex (also known as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) and its power to remove migrants from Europe. The second is the dissolution of the infamous Dublin III Regulation which mandates that migrants arriving in Europe must register themselves, normally, in their first country of entrance.
Human rights organizations, namely Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have expressed their dissatisfaction at the Pact. The Pact signals that European solidarity is only achievable if migration to its borders is curtailed and that Europe is forcing other nations to shoulder the situation.
What led to the Pact?
The terms ‘Europe’ and ‘migration’ have been linked since 2015, the year which marked the peak in the current, so-called ‘migrant crisis’. Many people were fleeing countries decimated by war and economic deprivation.
Greece, Malta, Spain, and Italy dealt with record numbers of individuals making the treacherous crossing from North Africa across the Mediterranean. In 2015, more than 2.3 million illegal crossings were recorded. However, the crossing also cost thousands their lives and for many who made it to the shores of Europe, the journey ahead was equally hazardous.
Germany and Sweden did take a substantial number of migrants, and the majority of EU countries wanted a mandatory migrant quota system (to alleviate the pressure on the southern EU countries). However, this was not a consensus. Since 2015, the EU’s political climate has been dominated by the rise of the ‘Fortress Europe’ concept.
In the UK and France, UKIP (UK Independence Party) and Front National (now, Rassemblement national) Party’s right-wing, nationalist rhetoric gained significant support. On a larger scale, Czechia, Hungary and Poland’s populist governments have strong anti-migration rhetoric and have fiercely resisted the EU’s migrant quota system, along with Czechia.
On April 2nd 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that Hungary, Poland, and Czechia broke European law “when they failed to give refuge to asylum seekers”. They “now face possible fines for refusing to take a share of refugees, after EU leaders forced through mandatory quotas to relocate up to 160,000” asylum seekers, writes Jennifer Rankin of The Guardian.
These governments and parties, advocated for stricter migration controls as opposed to providing more support. Their opposition caused significant problems in the process of creating an united EU approach to the migrant crisis.
New Pact on Migration and Asylum
The Pact was introduced on September 23rd, 2020. It aims to address the discrepancies in the EU response to migration to-date.
There are four main aims: “Building confidence: a new balance between responsibility and solidarity; clear responsibilities through better, modernized procedures; a new mechanism for constant solidarity; and, an inclusive approach”. The aims stress ‘solidarity’, ‘responsibility’ and ‘inclusiveness’ as intrinsic elements of the Pact. Inherently these aims show that EU solidarity is still a major issue.
The Pact has several features which aim to refine and streamline the asylum and international protection process. Some new features will be: a modernized Eurodac (the fingerprint database for asylum seekers and irregular border crossers); flexible options for Member States’ involvement in asylum assistance; and compulsory health checks for migrants seeking international protection. These changes are alongside the significant changes being introduced to Frontex and the removal of the Dublin Regulation.
Frontex, an EU organization, is the coordinator of border management for the EU (and Schengen Area), a support for EU states’ governments, and organizes migrant returns. Since 2015, the agency has had strong cooperation with Greece and Italy and has worked with Serbia and Montenegro since May 2020.
Their operations take place across land, sea, and air and they are often the first point of contact for migrants seeking entry to Europe. It has had a controversial history since its inception in 2005. This is largely because the agency operates to keep migrants from Europe’s waters as well as shores, leaving many in a dangerous situation at sea, once they are already fleeing towards safety.
In 2015, François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, criticized Frontex’s sea operations because of their limited effectiveness at search and rescue, the tensions the agency creates, and how it disincentivizes private vessels from being able to help and assist migrants.
In 2019, increased resentment for Frontex grew as the agency began operating drones to monitor the migrants crossing and stranded in the Sea. Under international law, a vessel in distress must be provided with assistance if arriving into a nation’s territory. However, this obligation is not extended to “unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV” noted journalist, Phil McDuff.
Drones provided the opportunity for Frontex to monitor the distress and deaths of migrants without having to provide help. Ali Bilgic, a lecturer at the University of Loughborough, UK, emphasised that the ‘push-back’ approach to border control is a “practice of a European community of nation states that is exclusionary, violent, militarized, and racialized”.
Despite concerns that Frontex is too powerful and has been accused of inhumane actions especially in the Mediterranean, since early 2020, Frontex can “deploy its own armed and uniformed” guards and has been given a budget of 11 billion euros for 2021-27 notes Apostolis Fotiadis from Balkan Insight.
Dublin III Regulation to the new Asylum and Migration Management Regulation
The Dublin Regulation (also known as Dublin III Regulation) entered into force in 2013. It provided “a mechanism for determining which country is responsible for examining an application for international protection that has been lodged in one of the member states by a third country national or a stateless person”, according to Citizens Information Ireland. Mostly, an individual seeking international protection has to register in the country they first entered.
Despite the outlines of the Dublin Regulation, this did not always happen. For example, as early as September 2015, Finland stopped all return transfers to Hungary citing the failures in the Hungarian asylum system as the reason.
The list of safe third countries includes EU states, EU candidate states, and Members can compile their own list of deemed safe third countries. The Dublin Regulation meant that individuals can be returned, forcibly, to their entry country or could be sent to a safe third country (either their country of origin or another country).
What will the Pact alter?
Through the Pact, Frontex will be strengthened in its capacity to carry out more returns.The bolstering of the agency is allegedly necessary to maintain “the existence of close links with third countries”. The intention, according to the EC, is to ensure that Member States are more prepared for an increase in “challenging situations at their external borders”.
The guidelines of the Dublin Regulation placed disproportionate pressure on Greece, Italy, Spain and Malta who bear the majority of the responsibility of migration into Europe via sea. They shoulder the burden of providing the first response for many migrants who enter their national waters, and they are expected to process the majority of Europe’s international protection applications.
The Pact withdraws the Dublin III Regulation, making way for the new Asylum and Migration Management Regulation. Again, the core aim of the new Regulation is to “strengthen the return of irregular migrants”. The Pact will “incentivize and improve the cooperation with third countries” and Member States.
Within the complex and positive language of the Pact, it is evident that the core theme is to increase the ‘push-back’ approach to migration. The changes to Frontex and removal of the Dublin Regulation will enable more migrant returns or deportations to third countries.
A Human Rights Watch report, with over 50 NGO signatories, highlighted that “the Pact risks exacerbating the focus on externalization, deterrence, containment and return.”
Europe’s key issue with migration, to date, has been solidarity. The expansion of Frontex’s powers and the new Regulation through the Pact demonstrate a belief that solidarity can only be achieved by deporting migrants to third countries which generally provide less safety, and by taking fewer migrants altogether.
Pressure upon the northern African nations of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya is already present. Migrants crossing the Mediterranean will likely start from these countries. The EU continues to apply more pressure to these nations, imploring them to prevent migrants from leaving altogether.
The EU is aware of the precarious situation in these countries. The recent Arab Youth Survey by ASDA’A BCW found that “42% of all Arab youth have considered emigrating to another country”, largely because of current political and economic concerns.
The desire to maintain ‘Fortress Europe’ comes at the consequence of leaving many migrants in nations with economic and political uncertainty and allowing these countries to deal with ballooning migration swells without adequate resources, exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The focus of the Pact, by increasing the capabilities of migrant returns and blocking migrants entering Europe, through Frontex and the new Regulation, demonstrate that in 2020 Europe’s approach to migration is as punitive as ever.
It is easier to project anger at the failures of the EU’s mishandling of international protection and migrants, through Frontex and the Dublin Regulation, than it is to tackle the systemic issue at play in Europe. Whilst the failures at the hands of Frontex and the Dublin Regulation are worrying, the broader concern is that the continent is deeply divided, and more interested in protecting itself than assisting people in crisis who look to it for safety.
Europe hopes to solve the migration question via ‘push-back’ and by giving economic incentives to encourage other nations to keep migrants, many of whom cannot afford to say no.
Amnesty International’s EU Advocacy Director, Eve Geddie, emphasizes, “this pact will do nothing to alleviate the suffering of thousands of people stuck in camps on the Greek islands, or in detention centers in Libya. Nor will it provide the needed support to countries where people seeking safety first arrive.”
The solidarity Europe so desperately desires will be felt most deeply by the migrants themselves. The treacherous journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe may decrease, but they will not stop. Instead, these migrants will face even more uncertainty as they risk their futures and lives for hope.