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Agreement Reached on the European Agenda on Migration, but Significant Challenges Remain

July 23, 2015

FacebooktwitterFacebooktwitter editor’s note: Before departing for summer vacations, EU leaders last week made important decisions regarding the worsening, and politically divisive issue of illegal migration.

The relevant commission in charge of addressing the issue is led by a veteran of Greece’s former Samaras government, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and his team has been working hard in recent months along with others in the EU system. On Monday, July 20 Justice and Home Affairs ministers met in Brussels, and contributor Maria-Antoaneta Neag was there to gain insight into the complexities of the migration talks at the EU level, observe the debate and note some of the EU’s envisaged answers to the migration phenomenon.

This is a problem that is having an acute effect on the Balkans. As we predicted recently, a ‘migrant bubble’ is now forming within Serbia and Macedonia, due to an unprecedented problem – the fact of illegal migrants transiting on a large scale from the EU to the EU through non-EU countries – which remains an issue Brussels remains unwilling to even acknowledge.

By Maria-Antoaneta Neag

Saving Lives Is a Complicated Affair…

The EU was taken to task last year regarding its migration policy by a European official whose authority is not political, but moral. Addressing the European Parliament in November 2014, Pope Francis said Europe is “somewhat elderly and haggard” and “less and less a protagonist” in the world. On the issue of migration, he talked about a “united response” needed to help migrants arriving in Europe. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery,” he said.

Europe has to reply to this criticism by proving it can cope with this phenomenon. With the Greek commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos in charge of Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, common rules are in place, though still in need of implementation. The Common European Asylum System, EU agencies and other already running programmes and projects indicate that the EU seems equipped. However, migration remains a challenge. EU is still fighting irregular migration, partially overwhelmed by the reality of its existence and its consequences at societal level.

With more than 276,000 immigrants arriving in the European Union in 2014, 138% more compared to the previous year, the EU faces several challenges: the reception, identification, processing of asylum seekers’ applications, relocation or readmission, absorption into the labour market as well as the swift cultural and social integration of migrants.

The recent tragic events in the Mediterranean add pressure to EU capacities and response. To name a few examples, several hundred migrants died near Lampedusa, Italy in 2013, while new forms and routes of migration are emerging; the “Ghost Ships” phenomenon is arising (e.g., more than 1,200 migrants abandoned and cast adrift by human smugglers found on two ships off Italy, ‘Blue Sky M’ and ‘Ezadeen’, in December 2014). According to the UN, the year 2015 has already seen a maritime death toll of 1,867.

THE EU has developed mechanisms and structures to tackle such events: Joint Operation Triton (started on November 2014 under Frontex coordination has already saved thousands of migrants. Europol has contributed by facilitating intelligence-sharing and cross-border investigations; its recent actions led to the arrest of hundreds of human smugglers. The Mare Nostrum operation of 2013 also saved 150,000 migrants.

Still, the problem remains, and thus the EU has started a process of drafting a more comprehensive migration policy. The President of the European Council convened a special meeting on migration that was held on April 23, 2015. After a European Council Statement and a European Parliament resolution focusing on the latest tragedies in the Mediterranean and EU migration and asylum policies, in May 2015 the European Commission released its long-awaited European Agenda on Migration.

As a response to the growing instability and the subsequent migratory flows in the EU’s southern flank, the principles of the European Agenda on Migration relate to addressing the root causes of migration, saving lives at sea, dismantling smuggling networks (through the Common Security and Defence Policy operations in the Mediterranean to capture and destroy boats), strengthening the common asylum policy and addressing legal migration through a new policy.

This policy takes into account the EU’s demographic, economic and labor market architecture. Frontex, Europol and EASO received additional funding and extended mandates, in order to swiftly identify, register and fingerprint arriving migrants, and in order to assist in the fight against migrant smuggling networks. Furthermore, in cooperation with international stakeholders such as the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency, a pilot multi-purpose center in Niger will be set up to register applications while migrants are still in Africa.

The EU, a Humanitarian Global Player versus Fortress Europe

While having a Common European Asylum System in place, dealing with immigrants and asylum seekers remains a challenge for the European Union, as some countries are facing a disproportionate burden. The case of Malta, a chronic recipient of mass migration due to its geographical position, is a good example. With a population of about 400,000 inhabitants, the question of how to deal with the migratory wave given limited reception capacity becomes acute.

Questions like reception in countries like Malta, Italy and Greece haunt EU leaders who are now envisaging a holistic approach to migration. Other unresolved issues include: how to share the burden among the EU’s Member States; how to increase the mobility of EU’s labour force; how to deal with the cultural and religious differences; how to identify possible criminal links; how to ensure their human rights – family reunification, education etc. – without unbalancing the EU’s allegedly already well-structured multicultural social, economic and political system?

Official Statistics and EU Responses to the Migrant Presence

We can now turn to some of the EU’s envisaged answers to the migration phenomenon, one that increases in magnitude year on year.

The latest annual report from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) highlights that the year 2014 left more than half a million asylum seekers still waiting for an EU reply to their request (a 37% increase compared to 2013). In the first months of 2015, there was a 68% increase compared to the same period last year. Strengthening the common asylum policy through full application of the common rules, and the systematic monitoring and solidarity with EU member states facing high flows of asylum seekers, are among the priorities expressed in the European Agenda on Migration.

In 2014 there were 441,780 detections of illegal stays in the EU. Out of the 283,532 detections of illegal border-crossing, a quarter were of Syrian origin. In an effort to tackle this phenomenon, the EU also focused on resettlement, thus 252,003 third-country nationals were effectively returned to third countries.

The European Agenda on Migration focuses on defining actions for the better application of return policies, and the safe and legal resettlement of people. The EU will explore the opportunity for other trade and development agreements with third countries to address their readmission and the full implementation of EU rules on returns.

Resettlement agreements with candidate or potential candidate countries play an important role in the EU accession process. In July 2015, EU interior ministers also adopted conclusions on designating certain third countries (i.e. the Western Balkans) as ‘safe’ countries of origin for the purpose of an accelerated examination procedure of applications for international protection (the Asylum Procedures directive).

Reactions to Migration in the Balkans

In some member states, many recent developments have taken place in the area of tackling migration flows. In order to keep out illegal migrants, following the Melilla model, Greece in 2012 built a 10.5-kilometer long, 4-meter high barbed-wire border fence along the Greek-Turkish border (on the Evros River where many migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria and Congo were entering the country).

Many human rights disputes are linked to the migration phenomenon and many NGOs (i.e. Amnesty International) highlight the unlawful treatment refugees and illegal migrants entering the EU from Greece allegedly receive. The current economic collapse of the country and the political turmoil are destabilizing Greece’s efforts as an EU frontline for migration.

Recently, Bulgaria too built a 30-kilometer metal fence along a section of Turkey’s border, with guards posted every 100 meters. Hungary too is building a wall along its border with Serbia. The beginning of the year saw one-third of the EU’s asylum seekers registered in Hungary (more than 50,000 migrants compared to a total of 43,000 in 2014) – exceeding the figures in Italy.

The Hungarian border wall project caused a reaction from the United Nations and the EU.

Serbia too must increase efforts to deal with the migrants stuck within their borders, and is objecting to Hungary’s new ‘Berlin Wall.’ In the middle of it all, Macedonia meanwhile is left to deal with pressure from its northern and southern borders, as Serbia sends its migrants back due to Hungarian reactions, and Greece keeps sending more migrants north due to Turkey’s inability to prevent them from reaching Greece.

Offical EU July Decisions: from Relocation to Return and Resettlements

EU financial resources (approx. €3.6 billion for the period 2014-2020) are available to member states regarding legal and irregular migration, return, asylum, border management and integration.

Emergency assistance is also provided, as in the case of Greece, one of the most affected countries in addressing the increas­ing arrival of migrants in need of international protection, benefiting from the European Refugee Fund emergency mecha­nism since 2008.

All institutions are sending their messages and envisaging immediate policy responses to this crisis as well as a long term reflection on the effects of migratory flows reaching Europe.

The European Parliament’s views were reflected in the Ska Keller report (Greens/EFA, DE) adopted on July 16, in the EP’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) meeting; it was the last one before the summer recess.

Following lengthy and assiduous debates in June 2015, EU leaders reached some sort of agreement on the need to relocate and resettle 60,000 refugees (40,000 persons in clear need of international protection and 20,000 displaced persons) from Greece and Italy across EU member states, over the next two years.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was forced to ditch his idea of mandatory quotas for the distribution of asylum-seekers, as the Council fiercely opposed the idea. Interestingly enough, although they have represented high numbers of intra-EU migrants, Eastern European countries were largely behind the opposition to Juncker’s plan.

The results also focused on returns. Following the Spanish experience with preventing waves of illegal migrants to the Canary Island, EU leaders decided that migrants with no legal right in the EU must be returned.

With the aim of a geographically comprehensive system of relocation, EU interior ministers under the chair of Jean Asselborn, Luxembourgish Minister of Immigration and Asylum, in the presence of representatives of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland agreed on July 20 to relocate 32,256 Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, and to settle 22,504 refugees as of October. The remaining 8,000 from the initial target will be allocated by the end of the year.

Germany (10,500) and France (6,752) will be receiving the highest numbers while Austria and Hungary refused to relocate any. Denmark used its opt-out, and the UK and Ireland did not take the opt-in on justice and home affairs policies. However, Ireland will voluntarily take in 600 people. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland will also participate in the relocation scheme.

The migrant crisis is far from over, of course; the Western Balkans will be affected by the construction of the new border wall between Hungary and Serbia; many member states remain vulnerable to migrant influxes – mainly Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, countries which have received 137,000 people between January and June 2015, including asylum seekers, refugees and illegal migrants. Meanwhile, suspicion (and even xenophobia) is growing in Europe regarding the justification for migrants’ rights to enter the EU at all.



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