EU parliament adopts stricter migration rules in landmark asylum reform

By AFP   April 10, 2024 | 07:10 pm PT
The EU parliament on Wednesday adopted a contentious reform of Europe's asylum policies that will harden border procedures and force all the bloc's 27 nations to share responsibility.
EU flag in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium in 2022. Photo by AFP

EU flag in front of the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium in 2022. Photo by AFP

The parliament's main political groups overcame opposition from far-right and far-left parties to pass the new migration and asylum pact – a sweeping reform nearly a decade in the making.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the new rules a "historic, indispensable step" for the European Union.

The migration minister for Greece, one of the countries worst affected by arrivals of growing numbers of undocumented migrants, echoed this comment. "This is a major breakthrough and a very important step towards a common, and therefore more effective, management of the migration challenges of our time," Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said the adoption of this reform was a "huge achievement for Europe". "Today is indeed a historic day," the European Commission president told a news conference after the European Parliament adopted the reform.

EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said the bloc "will be able to better protect our external borders, the vulnerable and refugees, swiftly return those not eligible to stay" and introduce "mandatory solidarity" between member states.

Ten pieces of legislation in the overhaul were passed.

Outside the Brussels parliament building, dozens of demonstrators protested against the vote, echoing criticism from more than 160 migrant charities and non-governmental organizations who view it as a betrayal of European Union values.

In a sign of the fierce opposition, the start of voting was interrupted by protesters in the public gallery yelling "This pact kills - vote no!" until the chamber was brought to order.

But the UNHCR refugee agency's chief has endorsed the reform, drawn up by the European Commission since massive inflows jolted the bloc in 2015.

For the far-left, the reforms – which include building border centers to hold asylum-seekers and sending some to outside "safe" countries – were incompatible with Europe's commitment to upholding human rights.

It was "a pact with the devil," said Damien Careme, a lawmaker from the Greens group.

Far-right lawmakers complained the overhaul did not go far enough to block access to irregular migrants, whom they accuse of spreading insecurity and threatening to "submerge" European identity.

"We won't allow ourselves to be replaced or submerged," Jordan Bardella, a lawmaker heading France's far-right National Rally party whose figurehead is Marine Le Pen, said in the pre-vote debate.

'Problematic elements'

The mainstream centrist right and left in parliament had called for the pact to be passed as an improvement over the current situation.

They warned that failure to pass the reforms would boost the far-right, predicted to become a bigger force in the European Parliament following June elections.

Sophie In 'T Veld, a key figure pushing the package through, acknowledged "problematic elements, risks and weaknesses", but said that overall it marked a step forward.

The pact's measures are to come into force in 2026, after the European Commission sets out in coming months how it would be implemented.

The new border centers would hold irregular migrants while their asylum requests are vetted, and speed up deportations of those deemed inadmissible.

It would also require EU countries to take in thousands of asylum-seekers from "frontline" states such as Italy and Greece. Alternatively, they could provide money or other resources to the under-pressure nations.

The German chancellor, commenting on X, the former Twitter, said the accord stands for "solidarity among European states" and would "finally relieve the burden on those countries that are particularly hard hit".

A controversial measure is the sending of asylum-seekers to countries outside the EU that are deemed "safe", if the migrant has sufficient ties to that country.

Deals with neighbors

The pact has wended through years of thorny talks and compromises ever since the bloc was confronted with large numbers of irregular migrants who arrived in 2015, many from war-torn Syria.

Under current EU rules, the arrival country bears responsibility for hosting and vetting asylum-seekers, and returning those deemed inadmissible. That has put southern states under pressure and fueled far-right sentiment.

A political breakthrough came in December when a weighted majority of EU countries backed the reforms -- overcoming opposition from Hungary and Poland.

In parallel with the reform, the EU has been multiplying the same sort of deal it struck with Turkey in 2016 to stem migratory flows.

It has reached accords with Tunisia and, most recently, Egypt that are portrayed as broader cooperation arrangements. Many lawmakers have, however, criticized the deals.

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