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What is the EU's new migration pact and how has it been received?

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Margaritas Schinas, left, and European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson present the EU's New Pact on Migration and Asylum
Margaritas Schinas, left, and European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson present the EU's New Pact on Migration and Asylum   -   Copyright  Stephanie Lecocq, Pool via AP
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European Union leaders say they have solved the conundrum of the bloc's long-criticised migration policies but many experts have already said the newly unveiled pact could prevent more member states from accepting migrants.

Announcing the set of proposals on Wednesday, Margarítis Schinás, commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life, said the European Commission hoped the New Pact on Migration and Asylum would constitute "a proper single cohesive migration policy".

EU leaders say that the new policies will focus on speeding up processing at the bloc's external borders and instead of imposing quotas on member states, will allow them to contribute in other ways to migration policy.

But the dense series of new policies has already come under some criticism by human rights organisations and experts. It will also still have to get the green light from both the European Council and Parliament.

Here are some key aspects and what human rights and migration experts have to say about them.

Mandatory yet flexible solidarity

A key aspect of the new pact on migration and asylum allows EU countries that have been reluctant to take in migrants — such as Poland, Hungary and Austria — to contribute by returning migrants who don't qualify for asylum or by helping with logistical support at the bloc's borders.

"Those who are not ready to contribute to relocation [of migrants from worst-hit EU countries like Greece and Italy] would assume on behalf of the European Union, the obligation to organise and carry out returns," Margarítis Schinas explained to Euronews.

Alberto Horst Neidhardt, an analyst for the European Policy Centre's European diversity and migration programme, said: "The proposal seeks to find a new, less controversial balance between solidarity and responsibility, trying to please hardline member states with greater flexibility whilst also considering the needs of frontline countries."

But, Neidhardt added, Brussels would have to provide clear incentives to EU countries to take in migrants so they did not all opt for helping with returnees.

"I suppose the Commission is trying to get countries like Hungary to agree that in effect you don’t have to take anyone, you can just pay Italy or another country to do their expulsions," said Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute.

A bet on willing member states

"The big gamble is that you are betting on all members states each living up to their part of the responsibility," said Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, a professor of migration and refugee law at the University of Copenhagen.

"Frontline states have to take a bigger role in the initial reception; other member states in terms of later relocating asylum seekers or taking responsibility for returning those rejected.

"But it only takes a few states not living up [to] their commitments and then the entire system breaks down."

Judith Sunderland, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, tweeted the "flexible option" means that "countries who refuse to accept responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers" will "deport people found to have no right to stay".

"It's like asking the school bully to walk a kid home," she added.

Several European countries have already come under fire for illegally pushing back migrants from the EU's external borders.

"It is unacceptable that the [new pact] will allow EU Member States the option of avoiding relocation by facilitating the return of migrants," said Maria Nyman, secretary-general of NGO network Caritas Europe, in a statement.

"By proposing 'return sponsorship' as an alternative to genuine relocation, the EU Commission makes an insult to the principle of solidarity, by actually deputising returns to countries that reject solidarity," tweeted Human Rights Watch's Philippe Dam.

The new pact, experts say, thus places an emphasis on "returns" or deporting those who do not qualify to seek asylum in the European Union.

But experts say that the key problem is that returns rely in part on cooperation with third party countries, which in the past has been an obstacle.

"Returns are easier said than done. Cooperation of third countries will be essential for expanding and implementing readmission agreements, and this will be contingent on establishing a genuine partnership of equals in the short and long-terms," said Neidhardt.

Speeding up border procedures

Many experts have also expressed concerns over EU plans to expedite processing at the external borders.

This includes deploying a European Border and Coast Guard standing corps from January 2021.

The new screening at borders should also take a maximum of five days, EU leaders said, during which there will be health checks and a decision about which country will be responsible for the person.

"Speed in procedures will always [come] at the expense of rule of law and the individual. Many of them arrive already with the baggage of distress and suffering," said Sergio Carrera, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies.

"Speedy procedures at external borders will be counterproductive and increase systematic inefficiency in countries like Greece."

University of Copenhagen Professor Gammeltoft-Hansen explains that "this faster procedure leaves migrants with fewer procedural guarantees" which "from a rule of law perspective raises a number of concerns since some of these states have a very poor record when it comes to both asylum procedures and providing reception facilities."

Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo
Migrants carrying their belongings flee a fire burning at the Moria camp on Lesbos island, Greece, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo

Is this just a new version of Dublin?

EU leaders were keen to emphasise a "new system" and a move away from the existing Dublin III system, but experts say the spirit of the pact remains similar.

"If you look at the proposal text, it still builds on a core set criteria to determine which member state will determine asylum claims that looks very much like what we have today," said Gammeltoft-Hansen.

But "symbolically", EU leaders are trying to move away from the "failed system," said Geddes at the Migration Policy Centre.

"In terms of substantive, what actually are the major substantive differences, a lot of the what you could call the Dublin principles are still there. The primary responsibility for asylum applicants is in the country they arrive in," he added.

Home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said that about two-thirds of the 140,000 migrants who arrived "irregularly" last year did not qualify for asylum, for instance.

Experts say this thus remains a focus on "irregular migration" instead of "migration" overall.

"It is quite difficult to get into the EU and regular pathways I think need to be part of this debate," Geddes said.

Some positive steps here, but change needed

Some experts said it was encouraging the new pact acknowledged structural weaknesses in the EU's system.

For the European Policy Centre's Neidhardt, welcome measures in the package include "the harmonisation of the criteria for granting international protection and the proposed improvement of reception conditions across member states."

Johansson told Euronews in an interview for instance that leaders wanted "no more Morias" referring to the crowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos where a devastating fire recently broke out.

"I think it is obvious that Moria is the result, not only, but partly, of the lack of a common European asylum and migration policy," Johansson said.

EU leaders said the bloc would include EU coordination centres at the external borders but not everyone is convinced that policy change will come easily.

"For years, the EU Commission has made new announcements, promises and commitments but what we see in the Greek islands and in the central Mediterranean is people seeking safety being systematically subjected to more misery, suffering, humiliation and violence," tweeted Dr Christos Christou, the international president of MSF or Doctors Without Borders.

"They and those who try to help them are treated like criminals. Just a few days ago, a fifth rescue boat was detained for ludicrous reasons and a new containment camp was set up in Lesbos," he continued, tweeting that what was needed is "radical policy change".

Correction: This article has been corrected to say that Andrew Geddes works for the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute.