Lost in migration
The question of what a common European asylum and migration policy should look like has remained unanswered since 2015, the year of Europe’s refugee crisis. Only half a decade later, another act of the same drama unfolded: as the coronavirus pandemic started to hit Europe, public health measures and social distancing rules adopted to fight the virus were completely irreconcilable with the reality of migrants in overcrowded reception centres and camps.
The reaction of Member States was divergent. On the one hand, the situation in migration camps such as on the Greek island of Lesbos became unbearable, in particular what regards the situation of unaccompanied children. On the other hand, some countries showed solidarity with migrants. Portugal, for instance, granted temporarily citizenship rights to migrants and asylum seekers whose residency applications were underway, in order to guarantee access to social security and health care during the pandemic.
In addition, European cities, as those directly responsible for reception and integration of refugees and migrants, strengthened their cooperation to develop new forms of solidarity among municipalities, such as the German Safe Harbours initiative, thereby denouncing member states’ inaction from the very bottom. But will their call for solidarity be heard in the capitals? Time has come for Europe to put all actors around the table and finally transform the challenge into an opportunity.
Together for a fresh start?
In September last year, the European Commission finally presented its long-awaited proposals for a New Pact for Migration and Asylum. Hopes were high that after many years of deadlock, the proposal would seize the moment for a truly reformed European asylum system.
Its first pillar aspires to more efficient and faster procedures through the introduction of an integrated border procedure to determine whether a person is entitled to protection. The second pillar concerns fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity, through flexible contributions from the Member States, ranging from relocation of asylum seekers from the country of first entry to taking over responsibility for returning individuals with no right to stay or various forms of operational support. The Pact is also accompanied by an Action Plan on integration and inclusion, which includes tailored support for migrants and EU citizens with a migrant background to ensure equal opportunities of access to education, employment, health services and housing, funded through European funding, such as the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund Plus, or the Asylum and Migration Fund.
If one might have hoped for a fresh start in unity, the pact reignited an old dispute between Member States: those requesting a common European solution and more solidarity to alleviate the burden on frontline countries (mainly Germany, France, and the Southern border countries), and those opposing reforms and mandatory solidarity schemes on relocation (comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia).
From a social democratic point of view, the Pact is a first step in the right direction, but more ambition and boldness are needed:
“We have been following the Council discussions on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum and alarm bells are ringing. The Council is focusing too much on further restrictive measures while turning its back on vulnerable people seeking protection. Solidarity is as much about finding ways to support vulnerable people as it is about supporting member states. The right of the individual to asylum, with a comprehensive assessment, must remain a cornerstone of any future asylum system in the EU”, underlined Birgit Sippel, S&D spokesperson on civil liberties, justice and home affairs.
If we want to transform the package into a real pact from which both migrants and host societies can benefit, Europe must take a qualitative step forward, by overcoming purely national interests and choosing solutions based on fairness and genuine solidarity.
Cities and regions, leading from the ground
This is also the main message of PES Group member Antje Grotheer, Vice-President of Bremen City Parliament, and rapporteur on the Pact for the European Committee of the Regions. In fact, the impact of the Pact on cities and regions is enormous, as they are the ones directly dealing with migration flows on the ground when it comes to access to basic services, accommodation, health care and education.
“Successful crisis management begins at local and regional level, and coordination with the many local and regional authorities all over Europe is therefore our top priority. In the interests of genuine European solidarity, managing migration effectively cannot be the sole responsibility of border regions. At the same time, the solidarity mechanism proposed by the European Commission must strike a balance between different forms of solidarity and see how the ‘return sponsorship’ system is feasible in practice”, Grotheer emphasises.
Grotheer underlines that our action needs first and foremost to be guided by the respect of human rights and the rule of law. To this effect, she makes a series of concrete requests in her opinion, including:
- The need to alleviate the pressure on border regions as first point of entry by allowing procedures to be handled also in other, non-border regions;
- further expanding resettlement programmes and setting up more humanitarian reception programmes;
- shorter periods for the examination of migrants’ applications for international protection and for responses to appeals;
- a more effective protection of vulnerable migrants, such as children, women, disabled persons and LGBTIQ people;
- a complete halt of the detention on minors in border procedures and alignment of the age threshold for the collection of biometric data to that applying to visa applicants;
- better involving regional and local authorities in pre-departure and pre-arrival measures of migrants;
- greater financial supports for cities and regions receiving migrants and the possibility to get direct access to the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.
Migration must indeed go hand in hand with integration in order to be successful. Therefore, the Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion is a much-needed complement to the Pact and must recognise the key role of cities and regions and offer them support. “Local and regional authorities play a decisive role not only in delivering integration and inclusion policies on the ground, but also in keeping up the momentum of solidarity, as many cities and regions willing to be actively involved in the reception and integration of vulnerable migrants. These authorities are also essential in the fight against disinformation about integration and migration, taking forward a positive narrative based on concrete facts and figures”, Grotheer emphasised.
This was also her main message to Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, who discussed the Action Plan for Integration and Inclusion with members of the European Committee of the Regions at their March plenary session and offered her support to the Committee’s #regions4integration initiative.
"We need to tackle disinformation.
We need to reverse the narrative on migration and integration through positive action and dissemination of good practices in order to halt further polarisation in our societies."@a_grotheer #CoRPlenary #Regions4Integration pic.twitter.com/wu0onUs8HT
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) March 19, 2021
Worth the fight
The xenophobic voices that had been trying to weaken, but to no avail, the European Committee of the Region’s position on the Pact have given us a glimpse of the difficult negotiations yet to come. All eyes are now on Portugal, who declared progress on the Migration and Asylum Pact as one of its EU Presidency priorities. But we must think even further ahead: if current trends continue, the number of refugees and migrants worldwide will continue to rise. A future-proof migration policy for Europe therefore requires both to learn from the tragic past experiences, and to be able to anticipate broader challenges in the long-run.
As progressive local and regional leaders from all around the EU, we will continue to make our voice heard and call for a strong European migration and asylum policy, based on solidarity and human rights.
At the same time, we will lead in our daily work by concrete action as main players in EU asylum policy. In the end, Gesine Schwan, President of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform and Chair of the SPD Fundamental Values Commission, might have a point in her reflection: “For reasons of power structure, the nation states in the EU are not in a position to give constructive answers to the refugee and asylum question. All over the world, the municipalities are increasingly the engines of innovative democratic politics. They form networks with one another and could become an integrative ‘safety net’ for citizens in the EU. That is worth working for.”