E.U. proposes immigration deal that would require countries to take a share of asylum seekers or assist in deportations

E.U. proposes immigration deal that would require countries to take a share of asylum seekers or assist in deportations

Originally Published in The Washington Post

Chico Harlan and Michael Birnbaum - September 23, 2020

ROME — After years of feuding and failure, the European Union on Wednesday proposed a migration system overhaul that would strive to speed up deportations and allow asylum seekers to be more evenly relocated across the bloc.

Five years after a historic wave of migrants hit Europe, the continent is trying with its latest plan to help such front-line Mediterranean countries as Greece and Italy, which have carried a disproportionate burden in the influx under current E.U. rules.

But the proposal nods at the political divisions within the bloc and is full of concessions to hard-line nations that have resisted accepting migrants, even with flows down more than tenfold from the peak.

“We all have to step up,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said as she unveiled the package in Brussels. “It is now time to rise to the challenge to manage migration jointly.”

The proposal, which was drawn up by the European Commission, the E.U.’s bureaucratic arm, still must be approved by the leaders of the 27 E.U. member nations, who routinely demand changes to such plans.

Recent European history is full of dead-on-arrival migration plans, but some analysts said Wednesday that this one comes at a time of slightly increased cooperation. Far-right parties, though still relevant, have lost some momentum in recent years. Data from Germany, which opened its doors widely and controversially in 2015, paints an encouraging picture of how refugees can integrate.

Leaders are also operating with a fresh reminder of Europe’s grave problems. A fire this month razed the continent’s largest, most notorious camp for asylum seekers, on the Greek island of Lesbos. About 10,000 people from the destroyed Moria camp now live in a hastily built tent camp on the island.

“In a way, it’s a key moment. If this migration pact doesn’t work, it’s the last roll of the dice,” said Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Center at the European University Institute in Florence. “Europe will have tried and tried again.”

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who has been critical of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy in the past, described the plan as a “fresh start” and called on other European countries to do their bit.

“There is currently no functioning European migration policy,” he said. “The events in Moria recently made this clear to us.”

This plan differs from an earlier, failed European attempt — drawn up in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis — that called for countries to host asylum seekers based on a quota system. In this instance, countries can still volunteer to host people.

But they also have other, far different options. Notably, they can opt to sponsor the deportation of rejected asylum seekers, essentially taking responsibility for shepherding the onerous process. If a sponsor country is unable to return the migrant, it would then have to host him or her.

The option could be more appealing to countries such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Austria, which revolted against the quota idea and are traditionally the least welcoming to migrants.

But advocates for migrants’ rights, as well as some politicians, accused the European Union of twisting its values by offering deportation as an alternative to hosting asylum seekers. Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter that the European Union could not afford to base its policies on “extremism” in Hungary and Poland.

Judith Sunderland, acting deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said that entrusting countries such as Hungary to care for would-be deportees was like “asking the school bully to walk the kid home.”

“It’s this lowest-common-denominator approach, satisfying everybody at least a little bit,” Sunderland said of the plan.

European Commissioners Margaritis Schinas, left, and Ylva Johansson attend a news conference in Brussels on Sept. 23, 2020.

A spokesman for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was noncommittal in his response to the plan Wednesday, saying in a statement that “we should form alliances with countries of origin, so that they are able to provide proper living standards and ensure that their people do not have to leave their homelands,” a suggestion that echoes in the proposal.

“Hungary does not support obligatory distribution,” wrote the spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, stopping short of endorsing the plan.

European Commission leaders said deportations were another way to ensure that the broader migration system was running smoothly, without bottlenecks.

The heightened focus on deportations is a response to changes in who has been arriving. Whereas in earlier years many were fleeing war-torn Syria — and almost universally earning protection in Europe — a growing number now are deemed economic migrants, not eligible for legal status. In one of the documents released Wednesday, the European Commission noted that the share of migrants coming from countries with low recognition rates for legal protection has risen from 13 percent in 2015 to 55 percent in 2018.

Groups that deal with migrants expressed concern Wednesday that some of Europe’s proposals, such as an attempt to fast-track deportations, could lead to increased detention, rights abuses and the mistaken return of at-risk people.

The plan calls for fast-track border procedures in which people with “low chances” for asylum are rapidly screened.

“They will have their return decision very quickly, and they will be returned,” said the European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson. “I think this will have people think twice before paying a lot of money to smugglers and before risking their lives going into these dangerous boats.”

Europe has struggled to carry out deportations, despite numerous pledges to improve numbers. Only about a third of people who are given deportation orders are actually sent to their home countries. Countries in the Middle East and Africa, from where most migrants to Europe originate, have been reluctant to accept returns. In some cases, their economies rely on remittances from workers in wealthier countries. Countries also feel that Europe has not done enough to offer legal pathways for their citizens to come on student or work visas.

Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels, said it was a “blemish” on Europe that the continent has had such a hard time overhauling its migration system, even as the level of arrivals has become far more manageable. Even now, humanitarian rescue boats in the Mediterranean are often stuck for days as countries squabble over whether to accept the boat at port — and what to do with the migrants who arrive.

“We can’t be seen as scrambling and not knowing what to do when even a small boat arrives,” Beirens said. “If you look at the numbers now, they are manageable. This is something the E.U. should be able to manage. But because of the deep distrust of member states to make even the slightest move that could be seen as weakness, we have a very stalled process.”

Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Loveday Morris in Berlin contributed to this report.

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