The past decade has been characterized by two of the greatest migration crises of the century, and Western countries such as the US and the EU member states have witnessed the arrival of millions of migrants from places dominated either by conflict, or by a poverty that leaves no hope in the future. According to the UNHCR Global Trends Report of 2022, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide amounted to around 108 million last year, with almost 50% being war refugees, asylum seekers or individuals in need of international protection. The main causes for this global phenomenon concern the presence of mafias, which largely contribute to the worsening of a situation that’s generally already bad, on the territories the migrants come from, and the increasing damages caused by global warming; it is also believed that other minor drivers, such as the idealized view of the migrants’ destination channeled through social media, are imputable. Despite the one of 2022 not being the first migration crisis that’s hit European countries in the 21st century - one need only mention the 2015 immigration wave, which saw the asylum request from 1.3 million refugees having just entered the continent, - politicians are not yet sure about how to handle this situation. While the Trump Administration of 2016 might have tried to solve the problem by fortifying the so-called “Wall of Shame” between Mexico and the US, the EU is striving to come to a final agreement that can satisfy all member states. Can the solutions found content everyone, though?
Migration in Europe
As can be read on the Statistics on migration to Europe page of the European Commission website, the flow of immigrants who chose Europe as their final destination is of a very different nature compared to that of 2015: starting with almost half of migrants to the EU being irregular eight years ago, the figures for 2022 have radically changed. Although the number of people arriving in the Union - which is much higher than in the years 2017-2021 - is approximately the same as during the 2015 crisis, the proportion of irregular migrants registered last year was down to about 10% of the total, compared to the initial 50% of 2015.If migration in 2022 has been mostly legal, why is it perceived as such a big threat by the public opinion and by the leaders of some EU member states? One of the first explanations that comes to mind builds on the idea that politicians (just like Macron, in France, and Scholz, in Germany) focus on the median voter. There is research suggesting that risk-averse individuals who also happen to be mistrusting of public institutions tend to find more appealing policies offering protection that is limited and conditional. In the past few years, most European countries have suffered from several economic shocks that have brought about greater uncertainty among the population; such sense of unpredictability caused people to perceive external threats as contributors to political instability. This could potentially be an explanation for the recent rise of populist, anti-immigration parties we have witnessed lately, since the latter, as some studies show, generally tailor their political discourse to reach precisely this type of individuals.
Another reason for such a widespread hostility towards immigration derives from the presence of several flaws in the EU’s current migration system. Countries on the Union’s external borders have lately been subject to a lot of pressure due to the fact that, in compliance with the Dublin III regulation of 2013, irregular immigrants must be processed in the country of entry before moving elsewhere. The immediate consequences of this are that frontier countries like Italy and Greece, which mostly take in irregular migrants, cannot send them to who is far from the borders, and therefore generally end up keeping most of them on their soil for prolonged periods of time. While some non-frontier member states have tried to welcome migrants in the past - a clear example of this is Germany, - others have refused to accept a quota of refugees in their jurisdiction. The heterogeneity in interests and policies on immigration adopted by EU countries has sparked the need for a new, common system to handle this kind of crisis. This is what Ursula von der Leyen and EU institutions have worked on since 2020.
The European solution
The attempt to go back to a situation with a limited migration flow was already made in 2015, during the European migrant crisis. One of the solutions found at time was the EU-Turkey refugee return agreement, which meant Turkey closing its borders to Greece in exchange for money and diplomatic favors, to stop refugees from reaching the Greek islands. This strategy temporarily helped reduce the number of refugees coming to Europe, but it didn’t finally solve the problem: it simply moved the migrant flow from Turkey to other countries, such as Libya, Tunisia and Morocco.
In the search for a new compromise, the negotiations that have been ongoing from 2020 to December, 2023 have given shape to the EU common external migration policy long-awaited, through the New Pact on migration and asylum. The Pact - which will probably come into force in the summer of 2024 - foresees the implementation of important procedures in order to provide as much help as possible, without being overwhelmed by the migratory phenomenon. Among the main proposals the EU made there is screening and asylum procedures regulation, as well as a Union resettlement framework, but the most notable measure that will be taken is the mandatory solidarity mechanism.
This mechanism recognizes the wide-ranging challenges arising from different geographical locations, aiming to ensure solidarity among all member states and prevent individual nations form handling the needs of irregular arrivals alone. Within this framework, a member state can choose between accepting a relocation quota (with ten thousand euros per person and twelve thousand for each unaccompanied minor, provided from the EU budget) or making an economic contribution to expel irregular migrants. The participation of all member states is vital to ensure a fair and shared distribution of responsibilities. Unfortunately, the New Pact has decided to adopt a debatable compromise approach, making quotas optional and proposing a new, albeit controversial, interpretation of solidarity to accommodate states resistant to a standardized system. Under the new system, a European Union member can seek Commission intervention based on three scenarios: existing or anticipated migratory pressure, severe migratory crisis, or the arrival of people rescued at sea. Subsequently, the Commission is obliged to assist the government that has asked for help. However, the twenty-seven member countries retain autonomy in determining their intervention strategies and contributions. These contributions may involve relocation, financial contributions, or alternative solidarity measures such as deployment of personnel, measures focusing on capacity building or engaging in a “return sponsorship” program. The return sponsorship program involves the financing of the repatriations conducted by the border country. In this arrangement, member states would provide comprehensive assistance to ensure the swift return of individuals who have no right to stay, with the supporting member state taking full responsibility if the return does not occur within a predetermined timeframe. Additionally, there will also be a minimum annual number for relocations from member states experiencing higher arrivals to those less exposed, set at 30 000. Financial contributions will have a minimum annual fixed value of €20 000 per relocation.
How the compromise emerged
In a defining session on June 8, 2023, EU Interior Ministers achieved an historic agreement on how to process and relocate asylum seekers. The Swedish presidency presented compromise texts on two important aspects of the EU asylum system: the rules governing the processing of asylum applications and those determining the state responsible for applicants, including a corresponding solidarity mechanism. Following a hard day of bargaining and mediations, an unexpectedly large share of member states supported the proposals, surpassing the threshold needed for a qualified majority. Poland and Hungary’s votes against the proposals, and the abstentions, indicative of not full support, from Malta, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia, highlighted the complexity of achieving unanimity. Germany, too, has posed its own set of challenges, but for different reasons, as they have often been at odds with Italy, especially over the rights of migrants. Throughout the negotiations, divergent priorities emerged among northern and southern states, revealing contrasting perspectives on solidarity prevention of second movements. At the end of the day, the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez expressed astonishment at some countries’ inability to acknowledge the necessity to incorporate the external dimension into the Immigration Asylum Pact. According to him, only by strengthening cooperation among EU countries it is possible to mitigate the impact of irregular migration. However, both Warsaw and Budapest criticized the framework, falsely claiming it would impose compulsory quotas on the distribution of asylum seekers. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the solidarity mechanism amounted to "coercion", fearing it would result in financial penalties for his own country. Additionally, Polish European Affairs Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek wrote on the platform X that Poland would not accept absurd ideas imposed on them, as the country successfully managed the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, referring to the hospitality of 1.6 million war refugees from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Hungarian prime minster Orban opposed the creation of “migrant ghettos” and voiced strong objections during the EU Council discussion.
These political figures’ objections held significant weight, leading to substantial alteration in the final text establishing that the total number of relocations per year would amount to 30,000, which appears particularly low compared to the enormity of asylum applications seen in recent years. This will compel other countries to help out through 3 different options: take in some of the asylum seekers, pay a contribution of 20 thousand euros for each asylum seeker rejected or finance infrastructures or manpower needs. Yet, debates persisted post-June 8, with some states deeming these solidarity contributions inadequate while Poland and Hungary argued they posed an unreasonable burden.
In conclusion, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum marks a significant step in the European Union's ongoing efforts to address the challenges of rising immigration, now at its highest levels since 2016. It is evident that the immigration problem can only be addressed with an EU-wide approach; for this reason, it is imperative that the EU-Turkey deal, which will expire in 2024, is renewed and that the EU forges similar agreements with other African countries. Recognizing the interdependence of nations in addressing migration, forging cooperative alliances becomes pivotal for comprehensive and sustainable solutions.