Mandatory relocation still point of contention in new EU migration pact

Asylum seekers sit in the new refugee camp at Kara Tepe on Lesbos island, Greece, 13 September 2020. [EPA-EFE/ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU]

The European Commission’s long-awaited new migration pact will consist of five regulations and a political text, EU sources have told EURACTIV. However, the thorny issue of mandatory relocation, which some EU countries strongly oppose, continues to cause headaches.

The European Commission was scheduled to present the long-delayed migration pact on 30 September, but after last week’s fire that destroyed Moria, the largest refugee camp on Greece’s Lesbos island, the announcement has been brought forward to next week (23 September).

EURACTIV has learned that an alliance of countries at the frontline of migration developments has been formed, including Malta, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus, promoting common positions on migration.

EU migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday (15 September) that the new scheme will prioritise ‘mandatory solidarity’ but did not elaborate how this will work in practice.

The southern alliance, though, is pushing for ‘tangible solidarity,’ referring actually to the mandatory relocation across the EU, the sources added.

The Commission’s asylum package has been overdue since February and been repeatedly postponed as attempts to reform the EU distribution system have so far failed over the opposition of Eastern European governments.

The Visegrad Four – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia – are expected to reiterate their opposition to obligatory relocation, and the negotiations are considered tough.

“In any case, negotiations on the new pact will take time. The migration pact will consist of a political text and five legal ones [regulations],” the EU source said.

Rumours in Brussels also suggest that an alternative scenario to mandatory relocation is being discussed, which is related to the return of migrants to their country of origin.

Particularly, the countries that do not wish to host refugees, will take over the responsibility of returning migrants to their countries who are not eligible for asylum in Europe.

According to the EU source, this could ease the burden of the first-line countries and simultaneously help politicians in eastern Europe ‘sell’ it accordingly to their audience.

EU to abolish Dublin regulation

Speaking to the European Parliament in her annual State of the Union speech on Wednesday (16 September), European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed the EU executive wants to abolish the so-called ‘Dublin Regulation’ entrusting the responsibility of an asylum application to the country of first entry for migrants into the EU.

The Dublin regulation was established in 1990 and has been reformed twice, most recently in 2013.

Under the rules, a member state that receives an asylum request must process it and the would-be refugee should not move on.

As a result, EU member states’ on the bloc’s external borders such as Italy and Greece were overburdened during the refugee crisis and let migrants travel on to neighbouring states.

“We will abolish the Dublin regulation and replace it with a new EU migration governance system,” von der Leyen said.

This will have “common structures for asylum and repatriation” and contain “a new strong solidarity mechanism”, she added.

“We have to make a clear distinction between those who have a right to stay and those who have no right to stay,” she said.

In addition, it is about fighting people smugglers more, strengthening the protection of external borders, and creating legal routes to Europe.

“Migration is an issue that has been discussed long enough… a lot has been done since 2015, but a lot is still missing,” Von der Leyen said, in reference to years of bitter deadlock over some EU countries’ refusal to accept the redistribution of asylum seekers.

She also called for rescuing refugees from distress at sea to be part of EU migration policy.

“The sea rescue is compulsory and not optional”, said von der Leyen.

The EU naval mission ‘Sophia’ rescued around 45,000 people from distress at sea off Libya between 2015 and the beginning of 2019.

Operation Sophia, running since 2015, stopped deploying ships a year ago after Italy, facing an anti-immigrant backlash, said it would no longer take migrants rescued at sea.

The operational area of ​​the follow-up mission ‘Operation Irini,’ launched in 2020, is now off the refugee routes from Libya to Europe, with EU member states to review it every four months to check it is not having a ‘pull effect’ – encouraging migrants to set out on risky crossings over the Mediterranean.

After the fire in the Greek refugee camp Moria, von der Leyen also reaffirmed the plan to build a new camp co-administered by the EU as a pilot project on the island of Lesbos.

Germany and France have both urged other EU members to show more solidarity and said the incident demonstrated the bloc needs to find a common answer to the migratory question.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

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