ISTANBUL SEP 28, 2023 DAILY SABAH
A handout photo made available by CHIGI PALACE PRESS OFFICE shows Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen watching the dozens of small boats moored in front of the quay, on which hundreds of migrants have arrived in recent weeks, in Lampedusa, Italy, Sept. 17, 2023. (EPA File Photo)
The European Union is expected to reach an agreement on the way the bloc deals with irregular migrants and asylum seekers, as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that over 2,500 migrants died or went missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
“By September 24, over 2,500 people were accounted as dead or missing in 2023 alone,” Ruven Menikdiwela, director of the UNHCR New York office, told the Security Council.
That number marked a large increase over the 1,680 dead or missing migrants in the same period in 2022.
EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said “no main obstacles” remain on the thorny issue after a meeting of the bloc’s interior ministers, and formal agreement would come “in a few days.”
Once implemented, the new Pact on Migration and Asylum would seek to relieve the pressure on so-called frontline countries such as Italy and Greece by relocating some arrivals to other EU states.
Those countries opposed to hosting asylum-seekers – Poland and Hungary among them – would be required to pay the ones that do take migrants in.
At the same time, the European Union will seek to speed up the processing of asylum applications so that migrants deemed inadmissible are returned to their country of origin or of transit, and maximum detention times for migrants in border centers would be lengthened from the current 12 weeks.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said her country won concessions allowing it to finally back the deal, after initially abstaining on an earlier draft it considered too harsh for some categories of migrants.
Only Poland and Hungary voiced opposition to the compromise text in the Brussels meeting, she said, so “we, therefore, assume that this political agreement is valid”.
Changes made to get German assent included making sure families and children were “prioritized” when they arrived irregularly on EU soil and admission criteria for asylum-seekers were not tightened, she said.
Also, “the concept of instrumentalization was defined more narrowly,” Faeser said.
That appeared to refer to efforts by Italy’s right-wing government to treat charity ships conducting migrant rescue operations in the Mediterranean similarly to people-smugglers, or to countries such as Belarus that have pushed migration flows towards Europe as a tactic.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in Berlin that his country needed more time to study the latest text.
Speaking after chairing the Brussels meeting, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska stressed that “a very broad majority of member states” agreed with the compromise approach.
While “nuances” still needed to be hammered out, he vowed that a final agreement would be reached “within the next few days.”
“We are almost at the finishing line,” he said.
Paralysis on the issue has caused growing frustration in the 27-nation bloc as it faces a rise in irregular migration.
The arrival of thousands of asylum-seekers arriving from Africa on the Italian island of Lampedusa notably spurred urgency to get the revised policy in place.
Part of the aim of the revised policy is for European Union countries to act together should they be faced with a sudden large inflow of asylum-seekers, as happened in 2015-2016 when hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived, most of them Syrians fleeing the war in their country.
Agreement among EU member states needs a weighted majority of countries to vote in favor, meaning countries opposing the host-or-pay clause – Poland, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic – would likely not have enough support to block it.
In March 2016, the EU and Türkiye reached an agreement to stop irregular migration through the Aegean Sea and improve the conditions of more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye.
The deal has been successful in stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, but the EU’s reluctance to take in refugees from Türkiye, and bureaucratic hurdles in transferring promised funds for refugees, have led to sharp criticism from Turkish politicians.
In Budapest, Gergely Gulyas, chief of staff of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, heaped fresh criticism on the migration pact.
“All they can achieve with this migration pact is to turn the border countries, countries along the Schengen border into Lampedusa,” he said.
The European Parliament added its own pressure on the ministers by deciding last week to pause negotiations with EU member states on aspects of the pact that had met little resistance, those dealing with reinforced security along the bloc’s outer border.
The goal of the EU is to have the reform made law before the European elections next June which will usher in a new European Parliament and commission.
The next cycle in EU politics could see a political shift in the European Parliament, given the rise of right-wing parties in several EU countries, and would see Hungary and Poland take turns holding the rotating EU presidency.