MEPs approve plans for long-awaited overhaul to EU asylum system


The European parliament has approved a series of proposals to overhaul the EU asylum system in a bid to end a years-long deadlock over the issue.

Voting in Strasbourg, MEPs approved plans on the distribution of refugees and migrants across the bloc, screening of people at the EU’s external borders and giving non-EU nationals long-term residence permits after three years of legal stay in a member state.

The votes open the way for MEPs to negotiate the final laws with EU ministers. All sides have pledged to aim for an agreement by April 2024 – before the European elections later that year.

After seven years of deadlock over the issue, lawmakers who will be involved in the negotiations suggested this could be the last chance to create a truly common European asylum system.

“If we miss this chance to make it right, I am very pessimistic about having any other chance to make it right and that will be an extremely, extremely disappointing, extremely sad, extremely counterproductive kind of a message,” Spanish Socialist MEP Juan Fernando López Aguilar told reporters before the vote.

Tomas Tobé, a Swedish centre-right MEP, said the EU was at a crossroad. “Either the political deadlock continues … or we will see the situation where member states will act independently and we will have more problems ahead of us.”

The crunch point is approaching as the EU grapples with the largest number of people seeking to come to Europe via irregular routes since 2016. The EU border agency Frontex reported 330,000 irregular crossings at the EU’s external borders in 2022, a 64% jump on the previous year and the highest since 2016.

After more than 1.2 million people fleeing war and persecution sought refuge in the union in 2015, triggering a political crisis for EU leaders, the European Commission proposed mandatory quotas of asylum seekers to be distributed around the bloc. But member states failed to back the idea. While Mediterranean states, such as Greece, Italy and Spain, insisted on mandatory relocation, central European countries, such as Hungary and Poland, refused to accept such a plan.

Under a new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, the EU executive revised its ideas in September 2020, proposing that member states opposed to mandatory relocation could instead take charge of returning people denied asylum in the EU to their country of origin. The EU typically returns about 29% of people denied asylum to their home country and is seeking to boost this number by striking deals with governments in the Middle East and Africa.

The European parliament argues that a country that refuses to take in asylum seekers during a crisis situation should be obliged to make financial contributions to frontline countries – an idea that was fiercely opposed and ultimately blocked by central Europe, led by Poland and Hungary’s nationalist governments, during the last round of failed talks.

With the support of the European parliament’s largest groups – the centre-right, centre-left and centrists – that proposal, along with the other negotiating positions, passed with comfortable majorities of about three-quarters of MEPs present on Thursday.

But EU member states have made little progress on the most controversial aspects of the draft laws, the shared management of asylum seekers during normal times and crisis situations. EU governments have, however, fixed a common position on tightening up screening on asylum seekers at the external border.

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MEPs have also called for tougher monitoring of human rights abuses at the EU’s frontiers, in response to numerous reports of illegal pushbacks and beatings.

At the same time, sea crossings are claiming more lives. The International Organization for Migration said last week that 441 people died trying to reach Europe via the central Mediterranean route between January to March 2023, the deadliest first quarter since 2017. With more than 20,000 people having died on this route alone since 2014, the UN agency said it feared these deaths have become “normalised”.

Stephanie Pope, an expert in EU asylum policy at Oxfam, said the votes were a significant step, but she was not hopeful of a better asylum system. “A lot of the proposals in the pact were pretty much a race to the bottom when it comes to the protection of human rights and the right to asylum and not much has changed in that regard,” she said.

“The key sticking point, and the root of a lot of the ongoing human rights violations against refugees we’ve seen for years now is the lack of an effective responsibility sharing mechanism between member states.

“Push backs and the violence we are seeing at borders are an unacceptable symptom of this failure to agree on responsibility sharing between member states.”

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