EU Migration Policies in times of Covid-19

Towards a strengthened EU-coordinated approach on migration and asylum.

Oresja Bace, Maria Vittoria Prisco, Sussana Mihaela Tanasi Oresja Bace, Maria Vittoria Prisco, Sussana Mihaela Tanasi

Migration is a European challenge and all of Europe must do its part”. This is what the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen claimed in her first State of the Union address to the European Parliament, while stressing the urgency for reinforced cooperation in terms of responsibility and solidarity among Member States toward the migration and asylum phenomena.

The speech, which dates back to early September 2020, came at a time when the European Union was facing an unprecedented challenge in the management of migration flows within its borders. This influx was compounded by the uncontrolled spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led national governments to impose travel restrictions and close internal borders, to the detriment of free movement and the right of asylum.

At the European level, a number of ad hoc mechanisms had already been undertaken over the years in order to tackle the issue of irregular immigration and ensure a tighter collaboration among Member States on common asylum policies. Such instruments, however, have proved to be inadequately enacted, poorly coordinated and dissimilarly implemented according to the different political and territorial realities.

Apart from the dramatic 2015 refugee crisis, the ongoing pandemic has now exacerbated the fragility and contradictions of a system that was already about to collapse, thus highlighting once again the utmost political divergencies among Members States and their complete inability to reach coordinated and endorsed solutions to the migratory phenomenon. While eastern states like Hungary and Poland keep rejecting any sort of compulsory mechanism of relocation of asylum seekers within the EU, southern coastal countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy – traditionally more prone to mandatory solidarity – are now facing all alone a new wave of migratory flows, in total absence of any adequate rescue measures and proper integration facilities.

From March 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic hardly hit the EU, migration services were also affected. It is regretful to note that some countries like Italy or Spain even ordered the shutdown of their permanent migration offices, while others, like Malta and the Czech Republic, preferred to merely admit urgent situations.

Although the number of arrivals of those seeking international protection or better living conditions has recently decreased and the cooperation with third countries of origin and transit like Turkey and Libya has been reinforced, it is no secret that the precarious conditions of migrants within the overcrowded reception centers are often unbearable and in total defiance of fundamental human rights and dignity. Moreover, the absence of adequate medical assistance and health monitoring on the borders might still represent a serious threat to the health and safety of the migrants and European citizens as a whole, especially in times of pandemic. In the long run, this could also lead to a stiffening of national containment measures and prolonged derogations to the right to free movement.

In response to the challenges posed by the current emergency, the European Commission has proposed a New Pact on Migration and Asylum which, if implemented, will reform and improve the current European asylum system as established by the 1990 Dublin Regulation.  The new set of border procedures is intended to promote a new mechanism of solidarity and mutual trust among Member States in sharing the “burden” of new arrivals and developing transparent legal pathways for asylum seekers and refugees, thus guaranteeing fairer migration corridors, safer rescue operations, vulnerability assessments during the pre-entry screening process and exemptions for vulnerable groups from border procedures.

The Commission’s proposal has the merit of being the first significant attempt to overcome the current deadlock in the negotiations for a new EU migration policy, after years of failed compromises between the European Institutions and the national governments. The New Pact on Migration is, however, still far away from being implemented and some concerns and reservations about the international arena need to be overcome. Such widespread skepticism is easily comprehensible in light of the fact that no “compulsory solidarity” mechanism has yet been enforced within the proposal. This means that each Member State is still left free to discretionally decide whether to directly welcome asylum seekers within its territories or to indirectly provide economic support to the countries that were traditionally affected by irregular migration flows to a great extent.

Whether or not it is still too early to give an overall assessment of the real effectiveness of the new European migration strategy, what the migration crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly shown is that the Common European Asylum System is still too fragile and incomplete. The crises have equally demonstrated that novel common and exceptional measures, more respectful of human rights and dignity, must be adopted in order to best overcome the modern challenges that are jeopardizing the European Union’s legitimacy and undermining its cohesion.

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