Migration pact still leaves Malta at whim of EU states’ good will

The European Union’s latest attempt at forging a common migration policy has two key flaws in its mechanism to return failed asylum seekers to their country of origin with haste

Our way or the high way: EC president Ursula von der Leyen receives leaders of the Visegrád Group: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (second from left), Czech PM Andrej Babiš, (first from right) and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki
Our way or the high way: EC president Ursula von der Leyen receives leaders of the Visegrád Group: Hungary’s Viktor Orbán (second from left), Czech PM Andrej Babiš, (first from right) and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki

The European Union’s latest attempt at forging a common migration policy has two key flaws in its mechanism to return failed asylum seekers to their country of origin with haste.

Nadia Petroni, a PhD student in international relations from the University of Malta, said that the returns mechanism remains dependent on cooperation and other flexible forms of support on a voluntary basis; but more important, while the mechanism is aimed at alleviating pressure on overburdened states, but no quantitative threshold is put forward in the proposal to identify what constitutes a pressure.

“The Pact only states that the Commission will carry out a holistic assessment based on all the information at its disposal, for example the number of asylum applications, search and rescue cases, irregular border crossings and returns,” Petroni said of the EC’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, unveiled earlier this week.

Brussels’s plan is to return more failed asylum-seekers to their home countries and meet the demands of some northern and central European nations that refuse to accept relocated migrants. Member states will be asked to sponsor returns to countries of origin, as well as capacity building, operational support and expertise.

But the policy also risks revising the internal battles between the bloc’s prime ministers, many of them with differing opinions on migration, always informed by their geopolitical realities and domestic politics.

One issue that has gone relatively unresolved for a country like Malta, is the issue of the disembarkation of migrants, Petroni said.

“The Pact only goes so far as to encourage cooperation between states in the face of the activity of humanitarian ships. Subsequently, member states are to ensure the prompt disembarkation of rescued persons in the nearest safe port, that is, in Italy, Malta or Greece,” she said.

But it is unlikely that Malta will see any significant impact through the pact. Petroni explains that the new replacement for the Dublin Regulation will still retain the “state of first entry” rule – that is, countries like Malta on the borders of the EU will be responsible for the hosting of migrants who enter in the EU through the first state of entry – and the management of irregular migration will once again be left in the hands of frontline member states.

The pact also fails to set out an automatic mandatory mechanism, completely ignoring the challenges that come with the disembarkation of migrants rescued by NGOs at sea.

“Unless solidarity options in the pact become obligatory, it is unlikely that member states will opt to help relocate migrants arriving in Malta irregularly. In practice the Pact will not produce the desired output in terms of solidarity from other EU members, including in the relocation of migrants rescued by NGO vessels and disembarked in Malta.”

Indeed, the prime ministers of the central European ‘Visegrad Four’ countries have already pushed back against the migration reform package, only one day after it was presented. After a meeting in Brussels with EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki, and the Czech prime minister Andrej Babis said the plan was unacceptable to the V4 group, which also includes Slovakia.

Orban – a staunch opponent of migration – does not want asylum claims to be processed beyond an illegal point of entry. But the Pact does not include a once-popular idea with some EU governments, of establishing hotspots outside of the EU in third countries to deal with asylum requests so EU countries would not have to manage migration themselves.

Petroni says that increased responsibilities for Frontex in the migration crisis may also be worrisome, saying the EU’s border coast guard has been known to carry out illegal pushbacks and deportations. “But the pact wants to give Frontex a more prominent role in the crisis.... this could be indicative of an increasingly restrictive approach towards irregular migration and the focus on strengthening the external borders,” Petroni says, suggesting that the policy is symptomatic of the rise of right-wing populism in Europe.

The key issue of the migration phenomenon remains a lack of solidarity among EU member states. “So long as EU legislation provides that asylum responsibility falls on the first member state in which a migrant arrives, the frontline member states will continue to carry the brunt of irregular migration by accident of geography.

“The establishment of an automatic mandatory relocation mechanism to distribute asylum seekers across the EU is crucial to ease pressure off the southern member states,” Petroni said.

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