EU adopts large-scale reform of asylum and migration policies

Amnesty International says new regulation 'will lead to greater human suffering'

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The European Parliament on Wednesday voted in favour of introducing a sweeping reform of Europe's asylum policies that will both harden border procedures and force all the bloc's 27 nations to share responsibility for migration.

Despite opposition from far-right and far-left parties, the parliament passed the new migration and asylum pact, enshrining a difficult overhaul nearly a decade in the making.

The measure will “secure European borders … while ensuring the protection of the fundamental rights” of migrants, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

“We must be the ones to decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers.”

EU governments – a majority of which previously approved the pact – also welcomed its adoption.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Greece's Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis both called it “historic”.

Migrant charities, though, immediately slammed the pact, which includes building border centres to hold asylum seekers and sending some to outside “safe” countries.

Amnesty International said the EU has “shamefully” backed a deal “they know will lead to greater human suffering” while the Red Cross federation urged member states “to guarantee humane conditions for asylum seekers and migrants affected”.

The vote itself was initially disrupted by protesters yelling, “The pact kills – vote no!", while dozens of demonstrators outside the parliament building in Brussels held up placards with slogans decrying the reform.

The parliament's far-left group, which maintains that the reforms are incompatible with Europe's commitment to upholding human rights, said it was a “dark day”.

It was “a pact with the devil”, said Damien Careme, a politician from the Greens group.

Far-right politicians had also opposed the passage of the 10 laws making up the pact, saying it was insufficient to stop irregular migrants they accuse of spreading insecurity and threatening to “submerge” European identity.

Marine Le Pen, the figurehead of France's far-right National Rally, posted on the social media platform X that the changes would give “legal impunity to NGOs complicit with smugglers”.

She and her party's leader who sits in the European Parliament, Jordan Bardella, said they would seek to overturn the reform after EU elections in June, which are tipped to boost far-right numbers in the legislature.

The pact's measures are due to come into force in 2026, after the European Commission sets out in the coming months how it would be enacted.

New border centres would hold migrants while their asylum requests are vetted and deportations of those deemed inadmissible would be sped up.

The pact also requires EU countries to take in thousands of asylum seekers from “frontline” states such as Italy and Greece, or – if they refuse – to provide money or other resources to the under-pressure nations.

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Hungary, run by an anti-immigration government that fiercely rejected the pact, reaffirmed that it would not be taking in any asylum seekers.

“This new migration pact practically gives the green light to illegal migration to Europe,” Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said before the vote.

“No matter what kind of migration pact the MEPs vote for, we will not give up on the physical border barrier … we will not allow illegal migrants to set foot here in Hungary.”

The German Chancellor, though, also commenting on X, said the accord stands for “solidarity among European states” and would “finally relieve the burden on those countries that are particularly hard hit”.

One measure particularly criticised by migrant charities is the sending of asylum seekers to countries outside the EU deemed “safe”, if the migrant has sufficient ties to that country.

The pact resulted from years of arduous negotiations spurred by a massive inflow of migrants in 2015, many from war-torn Syria and Afghanistan.

Under current EU rules, the arrival country bears responsibility for hosting and vetting asylum seekers as well as returning those deemed inadmissible. That has put southern states under pressure and fuelled far-right opposition.

A political breakthrough came in December when a weighted majority of EU countries backed the reforms, overcoming opposition from Hungary and Poland.

In parallel with the reform, the EU has been multiplying the same sort of deal it struck with Turkey in 2016 to stem migratory flows.

It has reached accords with Tunisia and, most recently, Egypt that are portrayed as broader co-operation arrangements. Many politicians have, however, criticised the deals.

Updated: April 10, 2024, 7:18 PM