On 23 September, the European Commission tabled the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum”. An interview with MEP and migration policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group at the European Parliament, Erik Marquardt, on the future of European asylum and migration.
This interview is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Eva van de Rakt: In her first state of the union speech in mid-September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that migration has enriched our individual cultures and that the EU needs a general asylum policy approach that ensures human dignity and solidarity. She stressed that Moria is a painful reminder of the need to stand together and announced intentions of improving conditions for refugees. These were mighty promises. Was there anything left of them after the presentation of the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum”?
Erik Marquardt MEP: The Commission’s proposal fails to keep these promises, as it converts the model of Greek camps into legislative form. This not only does nothing to prevent the existence of inhumane camps such as Moria, it institutionalises them. They are not an accident or error of current European refugee policy, but its consequence. That is why, after the dreadful fires in Moria, work immediately began to rebuild the camp and to build a new Moria somewhere else, rather than finding a sustainable solution and providing people with decent accommodation until they can be resettled. I have been there many times in recent years and am in a position to say that the conditions there are worse than ever. The Commission and member states want to put these camps on the external borders to frighten people off. In so doing, they are deliberately and consciously causing the suffering of those seeking international protection on the external borders, because suffering is part of the policy of deterrence.
Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas describes the Pact as a fresh start and a compromise. He hopes that it will form a strong foundation for future migration management in Europe, characterised by efficient procedures and effective solidarity. This framing of migration as a management is noteworthy. How do you see this choice of words?
Migration management has become a euphemism for repelling refugees. When people talk about migration management, we often unfortunately mean nothing more than blocking safe migration routes and the rule of law. This is technocratic vocabulary to cover up the chaos and human rights violations on the borders. This language turns people into numbers and sweeps each individual story of flight completely under the rug, making it invisible. This dehumanising strategy helps EU governments to justify their political decisions to their electorate.
At the press conference, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, referred repeatedly to the new concept of solidarity. In the future, member states will show solidarity by taking refugees from member states whose asylum systems are particularly under pressure, such as Greece and Italy (relocation procedures) and by means of the so-called returns sponsorships system. How do you see this interpretation of solidarity? Can this proposal sort out the hitherto dysfunctional system of sharing out refugees between the EU?
The Commission proposal talks of “flexible solidarity”. This means that member states may choose the form in which they show solidarity with the southern EU countries, if refugee numbers grow too high for them to cope with. Yet “flexible solidarity” denigrates the very principle of solidarity, because although member states are required to show solidarity in the event of high refugee numbers, they are not obliged to take refugees in. Member states unwilling to do so can take a different tack and show solidarity by, for instance, entering into a return partnership (read: deporting refugees on behalf of border states).
Deportation sponsorship was also discussed in Germany – a contender for misnomer of the year 2020, as far as I’m concerned. It has nothing to do with solidarity, but simply generates new, pointless administrative processes without serving any practical purpose. The European Commission declared the Dublin System dead – but wants to revive it in the New Pact as a key element of the European asylum system. All the Pact really changes is its name: Dublin is now called “migration management”. The Dublin System is a system of fobbing off responsibility onto the member states at the southern external borders of the EU. The Commission proposal will step up the responsibility of southern countries such as Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain, without offering them adequate solidarity.
The Commission proposal also lays emphasis on faster procedures on the external borders. What is your opinion of the new screening procedure? What effect will the proposed measures and procedures have on accommodation and the situation in the camps? What does the Pact mean for those seeking international protection?
The new screening procedure lays the foundation for the mass detention of refugees in closed camps on the external borders. These include everybody except unaccompanied minors and children under the age of 12 with their families. According to the proposal, every new arrival’s case will undergo a preliminary examination within five days. The experience of recent years makes this somewhat hard to believe. It is incredibly unlikely. This proposed time period can only lead to oversimplification, dehumanisation and high rates of error and therefore do nothing to guarantee rights to a fair and humane assessment process. Additionally, the period of detention for border procedures rises from four weeks at the moment to 12 weeks. The Commission’s intention is increased detention in appalling camps and clearly hopes to send out a signal to deter future refugees. The message is that you may as well stay in your Libyan torture camp, as you will be treated just as badly here.
I would like to return once more to Ursula von der Leyen’s state of the union speech. She said that saving human lives at sea is not optional. Johansson, in turn, told the press conference that the EU’s sea rescue mission is not being bolstered, simply that cooperation with NGOs providing sea rescue services is being sought. What is your opinion of the Pact as regards the EU’s role and responsibility in the Mediterranean?
Sea rescue is not strengthened by the Pact, which contains just a non-binding recommendation to member states not to criminalise those who carry out rescues at sea. However, the Commission encourages them to tighten up the safety requirements imposed on NGO rescue ships, meaning that in practice, small NGO vessels will no longer be able to operate. Effectively, the Commission is preventing rescues at sea. Rescues of refugees is thus not bolstered, but the reverse. Additionally, those plucked from the sea will in future be treated as asylum seekers on the country borders and will have to go through preliminary assessments and asylum procedures while living in closed detention camps on the external borders of the EU. Consequently, the southern member states will still shoulder the lion’s share of the burden and sea rescue outfits can still be criminalised, even if this goes against the Commission’s recommendation. Instead of state or Europe-wide sea rescue patrols in the Mediterranean, it erects a wall of the bodies of the drowned.
The Pact proposed by the Commission is a bitter blow to all campaigners for EU asylum and migration policy centred in human rights. It goes down extremely well with governments that have been trying to block approaches of solidarity for years. Yet there has already been vocal criticism from these same countries. What do you think of their reaction and how do you rate the chances of the proposal being approved?
The Commission has made an enormous number of concessions to states with right-wing populist governments, like Hungary and Poland, and they are still shouting the Commission proposal down, because they refuse to accept any compulsory burden-sharing. This just shows that you can’t work on solutions with politicians like Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, because they are not interested in solutions. Instead, we need a coalition of the willing to move forward. Not just nation states, but also the very many European communities who are prepared to take in refugees and are working together in movements such as the Sea Bridge. And also federal states like Berlin and Thuringia, which support the programme of resettlement to the federal states, currently blocked by Mr Seehofer.
Personally, I can’t see the Commission proposal getting through the European Parliament and the European Council in its current form, but I’m not going to shed any tears over that; as it stands, the proposal is not a good basis for a European refugee policy of solidarity with a focus on human rights.
Erik, thank you very much for the interview.