The EU’s “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” is missing a true foundation

A young man stands among tents in the Kara Tepe camp for refugees and migrants on the island of Lesbos, Greece, October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

On September 23, the European Commission launched the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum,” proposing to overhaul the European Union’s long ailing policies in this area. European Union Vice President Margaritis Schinas likened the pact to a building with three floors, comprised of: an external dimension (“centered around strengthened partnerships with countries of origin and transit”), “robust management” of external borders, and “firm but fair internal rules.” The commission proposal must still make its way through the legislative process in the European Parliament and European Council.

The problem is: The pact needs a foundational basement, in the form of recognizing that an overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries. Without a basement, the whole edifice is undermined. The EU must incorporate policy ideas from the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) to rectify this.

The New Pact’s three floors

The pact’s external dimension — which calls for strengthening partnerships with countries of origin and transit in the EU’s immediate neighborhood and beyond — is its ground floor. The second floor relates to policies to fortify and improve the management of the EU’s external borders. The third floor proposes rules to resolve the long-standing challenge within the EU to achieve a more balanced distribution of responsibilities and promote solidarity among EU members in dealing with asylum seekers and refugees.

At all three levels, the pact has faced intense push-back. With respect to the third floor, the commission has been criticized for catering to the priorities of the more conservative and anti-immigrant member states such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The pact allows members to opt out from participating in the relocation of asylum seekers and refugees within the EU by offering them the possibility to instead provide administrative and financial support to other member states. Serious doubts have been expressed about the viability of this scheme.

On the second floor, the big concern is that — once again — border security has been prioritized over access to asylum. While emphasizing the principle of “non-refoulement” as enshrined in international refugee law, the pact at the same time introduces measures that are clearly meant to complicate the possibility that individuals fleeing persecution and conflicts can seek or obtain protection in the EU. A former director of the Center for Refugees Studies of Oxford University sees these measures as aiming “to harden and formalize the ‘Fortress Europe.’ Migrants and refugees were to be kept out of Europe at all costs.”

The emphasis on protecting Europe’s borders becomes most evident at the ground floor. Here the pact calls for revamping partnership with third countries and reflects the EU’s long-standing policy of externalizing the cost and responsibility of managing its external borders. Tying policy issues such as development assistance, trade concessions, security, education, agriculture, and visa facilitation for third-country nationals to those countries’ willingness to cooperate on migration management has long been criticized as asymmetrical. The pact takes this relationship to a new coercive level by suggesting the possibility of “apply[ing] restrictive visa measures” to third countries unwilling to be cooperative.

Time will tell whether these problems on each floor will be addressed as the commission proposal makes its way through the legislative process. However, there is a deeper structural problem to the pact, resulting from the missing basement. This is because the pact fails to account for two major global realities confronting the EU.

The missing basement

The first problem is that the pact is so inward-oriented that it fails to recognize the policy implications of the dire state of forced migration globally. The number of forcibly displaced persons has increased dramatically, reaching almost 80 million. According to the U.N. Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees alone has gone up from roughly 15 million a decade ago to  26 million today. And 77% of the refugees find themselves in a protracted situation — defined as having remained displaced without a durable solution (such as voluntary return to their home countries following the resolution of conflicts, resettlement, or local integration) for more than five years. Because of persistent conflicts, only 3.9 million refugees were able to return to their homes between 2010 and 2019,  compared to roughly 10 million between 2000 and 2010 and 15.3 million in the 1990s.

Secondly, the pact makes little allowance for how the COVID-19 pandemic is going to impact EU’s migration and asylum policies. The pandemic has profoundly affected the capacity of host countries to manage the presence of refugees and ensure their protection. Already fragile health infrastructures are stretched in helping local populations, let alone refugees. The pandemic has also eroded income from trade, tourism, and crucial revenue from remittances. The pact should recognize the dire forced migration picture, the impact of COVID-19, and the associated expected rise in poverty. The Economist and the U.N. have noted that the pandemic risks undoing the gains made against poverty in the past two decades. Most affected will be developing countries, according to the World Bank, where more than 85% of these refugees are hosted.

This picture is likely to erode the capacity of these countries to cope with the presence of refugees and manage public resentment as competition for scarce resources between refugees and locals intensifies. Under these circumstances it would not be unrealistic to expect pressures for secondary movements towards the EU to build up, reminiscent of the ones that occurred during 2015 and 2016. The EU has an interest in recognizing the reality presented by the basement floor, and should supplement policies on the first floor and above accordingly.

Improving the pact with help from the GCR

The pact hardly makes any reference to the GCR, as a former UNHCR official points out, but it could be an inspiring source of policy ideas. The idea of the GCR emerged from the September 2016 U.N. summit in New York that was held to address the challenges resulting from the European migration crisis. Adopted in December 2018, the GCR recognizes that the traditional refugee protection system based on the 1951 Geneva Convention is under duress, if not broken. Against this reality, it calls on the international community to work together — in the spirit of burden- and responsibility-sharing — to improve the self-reliance of refugees and the resilience of their host communities, as well as help hosts transform refugees from being a humanitarian burden to a development and economic opportunity. All EU member countries, apart from Hungary, have endorsed the GCR.

Though the pact fails to acknowledge the GCR, Vice President Schinas promises to seek “global solutions and responsibility-sharing” with international partners on migration, as well as proposes to establish a “Union Resettlement and Humanitarian Admission Framework Regulation [that] would provide a stable EU framework for the EU contribution to global resettlement efforts.” These reflect at least the spirit of the GCR. However, the EU needs to go beyond this, and heed to the GCR’s call to “promote economic opportunities, decent work, job creation and entrepreneurship programs for host community members and refugees” in refugee hosting countries. Only than can the EU enjoy a solid basement floor for the rest of the pact.

Arriving at a win-win-win outcome on the first floor

The GCR offers a rich array of innovative policy suggestions that the EU can take into consideration when negotiating partnerships with countries hosting large numbers of refugees. One such policy idea calls for a more active involvement of the private sector in supporting self-reliance of refugees through decent and sustainable employment. In its partnership agreements, the EU could include terms incentivizing companies to offer such opportunities for refugees. This could be enabled by extending preferential trade arrangements for countries hosting large numbers of refugees, which is something the GCR mentions. Such partnerships with the EU could be conditioned to refugees being offered sustainable employment opportunities.

The advantage of all this is that the resulting economic growth would also benefit host communities, support social cohesion, and help empower already fragile economies coming out of a COVID-19-induced economic recession. It would also give the partnerships that the EU is advocating for at the ground floor of the pact a much more solid foundation, based on a cooperative spirit rather than the current formulation. In this way, the New Pact would help create a win-win-win outcome benefiting refugees, host countries, and the EU.