EU reaches asylum deal that rights groups say will create ‘cruel system’

Guardian   20 december

Plan is aimed at spreading cost of hosting asylum seekers across bloc and limiting number of arrivals

EU negotiators have reached agreement on rules aimed at spreading the cost and responsibility for hosting asylum seekers across the bloc, limiting the number of people coming in and making it easier to deport those whose claims fail.

Formal agreement on all 10 points of the plan, the outline of which was initially hammered out by interior ministers earlier this year after overcoming opposition from Hungary and Poland, must be reached by February, officials and MEPs have said.

After all-night talks, representatives from national governments, the European parliament and European Commission “reached a deal on the core political elements” of the pact on asylum and migration, the EU’s Spanish presidency said on Wednesday.

The controversial accord paves the way for a definitive agreement scheduled to be reached before European parliament elections in June and follows years of failed attempts to overhaul the bloc’s outdated asylum rules.

The president of the parliament, Roberta Metsola, called the deal “historic”, adding that while the package was not perfect, it struck “a balance between solidarity and responsibility” that was “far better for all of us than what we have had previously”.

The commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the pact would “ensure an effective European response to this European challenge” and mean “Europeans will decide who comes to the EU and who can stay, not people smugglers”.

While EU officials celebrated the deal, however, human rights groups including Amnesty, Oxfam, Caritas and Save the Children have criticised the changes, saying in an open letter that the package would create a “cruel system” that is unworkable.

The laws cover faster screening of irregular migrants when they arrive in the EU, procedures for handling asylum applications, rules on determining which EU country is responsible for dealing with applications and ways to tackle future crises.

The bloc’s migration regime in effect collapsed in 2015 when more than a million people, most fleeing war in Syria or Iraq, arrived in the EU without authorisation, and the 27 member states have since disagreed over how to share responsibility for irregular arrivals.

Efforts to overhaul the system have foundered because while southern “frontline” states, such as Greece and Italy, need help with large numbers of arrivals, member states in the north and east have been unwilling to take in more people.

Under the pact, frontline states will fast-screen all arrivals and take facial images and fingerprints. People regarded as a security risk or whose asylum claims are considered likely to fail – including women and children – can be held in border detention centres and face accelerated deportation.

Countries inland, meanwhile, will have a choice between accepting a certain number of refugees – based on the size of the country’s GDP and population and the number of irregular border crossings – or paying money into a joint EU fund. Agreement was also found on what kinds of mandatory support member states must provide to those struggling to cope in “crisis situations”.

Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, hailed the agreement as a “great success” for Europe and Italy which would mean that the EU border countries most exposed to migration would “no longer feel alone”.

The centrist Renew Europe group in the parliament said the pact would “significantly reduce the number of irregular arrivals”, while the centre-right European People’s party (EPP) group said the new rules would “allow us to regain control over our external borders”.

But Amnesty International’s EU office said on Wednesday the rules would lead to “a surge in suffering”, weakening the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and others, worsening existing legislation and failing to address actual problems.

In practice, the group said, the pact would result in more people being detained at European borders, more asylum seekers in “substandard procedures”, limited support for EU border states and emergency measures that restricted asylum becoming the norm.

Eve Geddie, Amnesty’s EU office director, said the pact would “almost certainly cause more people to be put into de facto detention at EU borders”, with “reduced safeguards for people seeking asylum in the EU”.

Instead of prioritising solidarity through relocations and strengthening protection systems, she said, states “will be able to simply pay to strengthen external borders, or fund countries outside the EU to prevent people from reaching Europe”.

Save the Children said the pact would lead to violations of children’s rights, endanger children on the move, and separate migrant families. Willy Bergogné, its Europe director, said legislators’ priority had plainly been to “close borders, not protect people – including families and children escaping violence, conflict, hunger and death while seeking protection in Europe”.

The Platform for Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) said that in practice the changes would mean that any person coming to Europe was “likely to be detained in border facilities, no exceptions: from babies to children, teens and adults”.

The Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts called the pact “unworkable”, saying it would “undermine the right to asylum, international law and human rights” and “solidify dangerous policies that are turning the Mediterranean into a graveyard”.

The Left group in parliament was also strongly critical of the agreement, describing it as “a dark day for the EU” that marked “the death of the individual right to asylum in Europe” and “the most significant attack on asylum and migration rights since the EU was founded”.

After their 2015 peak, migrant and refugee arrivals in the EU had fallen steadily until 2020, but are rising again, reaching 255,000 in the year to November, with more than half crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy or Malta.