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Bridget RyderJune 05, 2024
A view of migrants behind the metal barrier border that Poland has erected along the border with Belarus, in Bialowieza Forest, on May 29. Poland says neighboring Belarus and its main supporter Russia are behind a surging push by migrants in Belarus toward the European Union. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)A view of migrants behind the metal barrier border that Poland has erected along the border with Belarus, in Bialowieza Forest, on May 29. Poland says neighboring Belarus and its main supporter Russia are behind a surging push by migrants in Belarus toward the European Union. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

After years of debate and failed agreements, the European Union adopted its long-awaited new Pact on Migration and Asylum on May 14, just a few weeks before E.U. parliamentary elections are set to begin on June 6. That voting is expected to result in a strong swing to the political right, as parties running on anti-immigration platforms have surged across Europe in recent years.

The latest example comes from The Netherlands, where a newly formed right-wing coalition about to step into government leadership has pledged to opt out of the migration pact and impose the “strictest-ever asylum regime.” In July, Hungary, which remains staunchly opposed to the pact and to receiving asylum seekers, begins its turn in the E.U.’s rotating presidency.

With the E.U. elections looming, Pope Francis issued his official message on June 3 for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, which will be observed in September. He compared migrants to the Israelites during the Exodus and to the members of the pilgrim church, reminding Catholics life is a journey to heaven.

“It is possible to see in the migrants of our time, as in those of every age, a living image of God’s people on their way to the eternal homeland. Their journeys of hope remind us that ‘our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ,’” he said, quoting St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (3:20).

He said that “the encounter with the migrant, as with every brother and sister in need, is also an encounter with Christ.”

Sharing the burden of global migration

The new 10-part pact seeks to address some of the difficulties in attending to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers that was first experienced as the immigration crisis of 2015. The agreement standardizes a stricter asylum application process and establishes border centers at sites around Europe that have long endured high numbers of refugee arrivals. Asylum seekers will be held at those centers while their applications are evaluated.

The new pact also imposes rules to prevent asylum seekers from freely moving across the bloc, establishes time frames for processing migrants and asylum applications, and calls for the deportation of those not deemed eligible to remain in Europe.

One of the most controversial parts of the pact is the “solidarity mechanism” that, among other options, requires E.U. member states with low immigration rates to accept asylum seekers from countries like Italy, Greece and Spain that have been overwhelmed by the number of migrants arriving at their borders. The pact seeks to initially relocate some 30,000 migrants a year across the European Union, distributed according to each member state’s size and economic capacity.

Migration advocates believe that there is little chance that expectations created by the solidarity mechanism will be practically achievable. Governments in Poland and the Netherlands have already pledged not to comply, and other governments across Europe are facing increasing public pressure to throttle immigration flows.

Though the pact is widely viewed by human rights advocates as a step backward, Benoit Willemaers, S.J., from the Jesuit European Social Center in Brussels, said that it at least does address some of the worst practices among some European countries. Hungary, for example, has refused to accept any asylum seekers except incoming refugees from Ukraine.

But in the end, it is not clear what practical impact the pact will achieve after years of debate. Father Willemaers pointed out that political and bureaucratic events in Europe are already moving past the reach of the immigration pact.

Though it is no longer a member of the European Union, the United Kingdom has become the first European country to try shifting the migration crisis far from its borders. It plans to send migrants who enter the United Kingdom irregularly (typically in crossings of the English Channel) to Rwanda. That African nation will also be empowered with processing asylum applications to the United Kingdom.

Since it was first proposed in April 2022, the plan has faced legal, monetary and logistical challenges that have prevented any asylum seekers from being moved to Rwanda from the United Kingdom, though some 50,000 people have been deemed eligible for those deportations. Italy entered a similar agreement with Albania at the end of 2023, intending to build asylum centers there to house migrants rescued at sea off the Italian coast while their asylum claims are reviewed.

Just days after the pact’s adoption, 15 member states sent a letter to the E.U. commission calling for the European Union to similarly shift asylum processing and the reception of migrants to third-party countries.

According to the pact, E.U. member states that refuse to accept their share of asylum seekers must pay 20,000 euros per asylum seeker turned back. States do have the option of meeting their solidarity requirement by financially supporting other E.U. countries receiving immigrants or by making additional contributions in aid or humanitarian assistance to countries outside of the European Union, supporting programs that may address the need for immigration at its roots. According to the pact, member states’ contributions can also consist of alternative solidarity measures or helping with the deployment of reception centers.

Countries have two years to implement the pact’s new regulatory and infrastructural requirements.

Poland and Hungary, as expected, voted against the pact and remain strongly opposed to its solidarity mechanism. The Czech Republic and Slovakia abstained from voting on the majority of the pact, while Austria voted against a stipulation that allows the E.U. council to declare a migration crisis that raises the demands of the solidarity mechanism.

A new pact but far from a solution

Catholic immigration experts are skeptical about the impact of the pact, pointing out that it does not address the deeper causes of the global migration crisis. They add that its requirements will be difficult to implement and could lead to new human rights violations, primarily through large-scale detention of migrants and failure to justly assess asylum claims.

José Luis Bazán, legal adviser for migration and asylum to the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union told America that the pact is only a “political and technical agreement” and “does not seem to be the solution to the immigration issue but rather a way to mitigate the impact of a high migratory flow.” And despite that lack of ambition, “its implementation is not going to be easy,” he added.

Jesuit Refugee Service officials agree that the pact does not provide real solutions to Europe’s migration crisis; for example, it does not create more generous pathways for legal migration but merely legitimizes dubious practices in handling migrants that had developed initially in Greece and Italy.

“The new pact has been presented as a revolution, but on the ground it’s really a consolidation of practices that started in 2015,” Claudia Bonamini, policy and advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service, told America.

Ms. Bonamini said that the legality of these migrant detentions under international law had been questionable, but the practice has now been formalized across the bloc in the new asylum pact. “The rationale behind these border facilities and the border procedures is the capture of migrants,” she said.

Ms. Bonamini explained that even before the pact, the European Union had recognized “border hotspots” like the Greek island of Lesbos that were experiencing particularly high numbers of arrivals. Under that model, migrants had remained at these sites while basic information was collected and they were registered as refugees.

Between 2015 and 2017, the European Union also mandated the relocation of migrants from these facilities to host countries within the community where asylum applications could be processed. Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland refused to comply.

Migrant advocates warned of gaps in accessing the legal asylum process as government authorities tried to speed up both deportations and asylum procedures from within the hotspot centers. Migrant reception facilities at Lesbos, functioning as a de facto detention center, became overcrowded, Ms. Bonamini said.

Detention sites for migrants also sprung up in Lithuania and Poland along the Belarus border during an influx of asylum seekers over the winter of 2021-2022, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, according to Ms. Bonamini.

Under the pact, at the current border centers, incoming migrants will face an identification, health and security screening that should take no more than seven days. Those who are deemed “unlikely to need protection, mislead the authorities or present a security risk” will be subject to what the pact calls “border procedures,” an accelerated asylum application review, and will be detained at the border centers.

Ms. Bonanimi explained that, practically speaking, the new process means that migrants who come from countries where a high percentage of asylum claims are recognized, like Syria, will be moved out of the border centers after the initial screening and into the E.U.’s formal migrant reception system to request and wait for asylum.

But migrants entering the European Union from nations with high asylum rejection rates—typically many sub-Saharan African states—will be held at the border facilities. The asylum claims of those detainees will face a higher degree of skepticism and will be conducted under a more rapid review process, Ms. Bonanimi said, even though the asylum seekers may be fleeing an equivalent threat to their lives or safety.

The pact only guarantees legal counseling, not individual legal representation, for most migrants. “Legal counseling is not the same as having a lawyer that provides tailored legal advice,” Ms. Bonanimi said.

Additionally, she is concerned about how E.U. officials will assess risks to public safety posed by individual migrants. Too broad an assessment of risk will mean the detention of larger numbers of migrants.

Asylum seekers whose applications are rejected would be channeled into a return process. The entire process is mandated to take just over six months to asylum acceptance or deportation, but Ms. Bonamini is skeptical that member states will be able to stick to the mandated timeline.

She believes many migrants will be released into Europe without legal protections—or they will molder in detention.

E.U. states have long struggled with the logistic and funding challenges of deportation and in identifying and documenting refugees for return to their originating countries, or in finding third-party countries willing to accept them. The policy has been to release migrants and hope those not granted a legal stay will decide to leave the E.U. on their own. According to Mr. Bazán, only about 30 percent of refugees who reach Europe irregularly are deported. Mr. Bazán said he does not believe those circumstances will change significantly because of the new pact.

Ms. Bonamini and other migration advocates add that the border facilities envisioned in the new agreement do not exist at this time. The current sites are already inadequate to existing low standards.

“Overhauling the reception procedures and facilities will not come cheap,” said Father Willemaers. “There will be tough discussions between richer and poorer [European] countries over how much E.U. money will be provided to implement the pact, especially if…southern countries start blaming poor funding as an excuse for not implementing some provisions of the pact.”

With just days to go before the E.U. elections, a top Vatican official urged European voters on June 3 to remember their own migratory roots and show sympathy to people forced to flee their homes.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, Pope Francis’ point person on migration, was speaking at the launch of the pope’s annual message for migrants, the theme of which this year recalls God’s presence in every Christian’s faith journey and God’s accompaniment of people on the move.

Asked if he had a message to European voters, Cardinal Czerny recalled the theme of the pope’s message and said that a lot of talk about migration today is fueled by fear, ideology and propaganda about a “global crisis” that he says does not exist.

“It would also be useful for Europeans to recognize their own migratory roots,” he added. “We know from science that the human race wasn’t born here, and many Europeans hail from people on the move.”

“It’s truly a shame that after two or three generations families forget their migratory roots and those who helped them,” he said. “Now it’s our opportunity to help.”

With reporting from The Associated Press

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