An uneasy migration pact

Admittedly, defining a common action plan is not easy. For the time being the proposed migration pact is the best shot at adopting a common front although it requires more human rights safeguards

The migration pact agreed by EU leaders a couple of weeks ago was hailed as a breakthrough following years of inertia on the thorny issue.

The truth is that the details of the pact are no different from proposals that have been floated in the past and which were consistently shot down or objected to.

Even the concept of flexible solidarity through which member states can choose to pay money into a common pot rather than be part of the migrant relocation process is something that had been proposed in the past.

The agreement still needs to be cleared by the European Parliament but politicians across the union will be pressured to reach some sort of deal ahead of next year’s election. They will need to show their respective electorates that they are able to find solutions to the migration phenomenon. We can expect migration to feature as an issue in the 2024 European Parliament election, especially in countries where the far-right has made inroads.

The pact espouses tougher controls that allow frontier states to process asylum applications at the border, which will translate into longer detention periods for arriving migrants pending the processing of their application. It also introduces a solidarity mechanism by which migrants are distributed among the member states based on national quotas with an overall relocation limit of 30,000 per year. Member states that do not participate in the relocation process have to pay €20,000 per person into a common pot that can be used for overseas development. It also targets faster returns of people undeserving of protection and in a major concession to Italy, it is up to the individual member states to determine whether the place of return is safe or not.

The agreement is not without its critics. Poland and Hungary voted against, while Malta, Czechia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovakia abstained.

On a human rights level, Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s EU office said the pact would reduce standards of protection for people arriving at the EU’s borders.

In a scathing assessment, she said the pact would institute procedures at European borders that would “knowingly cause suffering, including detaining people in closed facilities at borders for months”. She also commented negatively on the fact that the authorities in the different member states would be able to send people seeking safety to any country that they deem safe.

Malta’s abstention has not been sufficiently explained. In his comments to the media after the pact was agreed, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said he remained unconvinced the deal would be fair for a small island as Malta. He expressed scepticism that the deal would translate into “a fair and effective system that can withstand the current and future challenges”. Prime Minister Robert Abela would only say the pact lacked flexibility.

Malta is now hoping on changes to the pact when it is discussed by the European Parliament.

It is unclear what Malta wanted that did not make it into the deal. The country has always advocated for mandatory relocation of migrants to ease the pressure on border states. Although the pact speaks of mandatory solidarity it gives member states three options to choose from with two of those options replacing relocations with payments or contribution of resources.

Migration is a complex issue. It is a phenomenon that will not go away. War, poverty, oppression, climate change, lack of opportunities; these are all issues that contribute to migration.

There will always be people trying to reach the relative safety and prosperity of the EU. What the EU needs is a common management system that ensures those who deserve protection are processed fairly and without delay with frontier states having the guarantee that migrants will be able to move across borders. For those undeserving of protection, a quick return process must be in place but the EU should develop clear legal pathways into the bloc to prevent these people from trying to enter irregularly in the first place.

Admittedly, defining a common action plan is not easy. For the time being the proposed migration pact is the best shot at adopting a common front although it requires more human rights safeguards.