Grace Gardiner | Europe & Eurasia Fellow
Of the many tribulations faced by the European Union (EU), none are so quickly forgotten than the status and treatment of asylum seekers. Refugees have largely been overlooked during the COVID-19 pandemic, a particularly cruel twist considering they are already some of society’s most vulnerable. But in the past month, the migrant question has claimed first place on Europe’s agenda, from media frenzy over refugees attempting to cross the English Channel to the fire that consumed the overpopulated Moria refugee camp in Greece.
These events have demonstrated the necessity for a new path in EU refugee policy. This new path is supposed to take the form of the European Commission’s new Pact on Migration and Asylum (Pact). This new approach does not learn from its past shortcomings. Instead, the Pact capitulates to the more nationalist elements of the EU while claiming to be doing something revolutionary. The Pact is largely a response to the European refugee crisis, which it claims lasted from 2015 to 2016. While it is true that numbers of irregular border crossings into the EU have dropped dramatically, the crisis remains.
Europe is still the focal point of a desperate humanitarian crisis. Shocking numbers of people have drowned at sea trying to get to Europe. If they make it, they are shunted for months in desolate and crowded camps, or else left homeless, eking out an existence in the limbo of Calais or Serbia, at the literal and figurative margins of the European promise. For all its claims that it is taking a ‘human and humane approach’ to asylum, it is clear in the Pact that human rights are a secondary concern to border security and Union politics.
Hopes were high when the Pact was first released, as it marked a move away from the ‘Dublin Regulation’ that has directed EU migration policy since 2003. Under the regulation, refugees were compelled to apply for asylum at the first EU country they arrived in, meaning that countries on the Mediterranean were forced to process millions while the rest of Europe had it relatively easy. Migrants would be kept for months in processing centres and refugee camps in what is called the ‘hotspot approach’. Southern nations have stated that they receive too little support from the EU, leading to the squalid conditions that were so horrifically demonstrated by the Moria fire.
These southern nations want the rest of Europe to contribute more and ease the pressure. Other nations, particularly Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic–which refused to take refugees in 2015–have since pursued anti-migrant policies that fly in the face of EU attempts to foster solidarity. Instead of punishing these members for eschewing human rights and EU solidarity, the EU has cowed to their desires. The Pact abandons previous policies that gave member states ‘quotas’ of refugees whose housing and asylum applications they were obliged to look after. Instead, it allows members who are unwilling to let in refugees to pay to keep people in southern camps. Of course, the Mediterranean states where these camps are located are not afforded this luxury. Furthermore, the EU is affirming right-wing politics by emphasising stricter border control mechanisms to keep asylum seekers out of Europe, and renewing efforts to deport more people.
The Pact promises to bring solidarity back to the refugee issue. But solidarity is supposed to mean support given to all by all, and the Pact offers no real remedy for the grim prospects faced by asylum seekers in Europe, nor does it offer any concrete new aid to the southern nations who have borne the brunt of the crisis. Instead, it seems to reward the hostile, anti-migrant politics of a few member states, allowing actions that have undermined unity and lead to untold suffering to play out at the level of the EU. The Pact implicitly affirms the recent spike in xenophobic rhetoric and policy in Europe, from calls in England for an ‘Australian-style’ system of offshore processing to the French city of Calais’ law banning charities from distributing food to refugees.
In typical EU fashion, it seems they have made no one happy. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic have already criticised the Pact, claiming it does not go far enough to prevent irregular arrivals in the EU. NGOs are concerned that it will simply lead to further human rights violations. Another worry is that the stress caused by continuing the hotspot approach will fuel tensions between local communities and residents of huge refugee camps – which fuels the rise of neo-fascist groups.
Thousands of migrants languishing in overcrowded camps and the southern nations bearing the brunt of their care will continue to suffer from the EU’s compromise. The Pact shows that while it’s easy to coordinate cruelty and indifference to suffering, it’s much more difficult to coordinate humanity and solidarity. The director of Migration Policy Institute Europe claimed that it was ‘daring but also brave’ to address the desires of states who have no interest in participating in a humane response to the refugee crisis. The opposite seems to be true: the EU is pandering to the most radical elements of its body at the expense of solidarity and human rights.
Grace Gardiner is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.