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15 EU countries call for the outsourcing of migration and asylum policy

The letter signed by 15 member states comes after the completion of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
The letter signed by 15 member states comes after the completion of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum. Copyright Agnieszka Sadowska/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Agnieszka Sadowska/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The statement comes mere days after the bloc completed the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, capping almost four years of tough negotiations.

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A group of 15 member states, led by Denmark, have issued a joint call to develop the outsourcing of migration and asylum policy, arguing the "unsustainable" increase in irregular arrivals seen in recent years justifies thinking "outside the box."

"The EU and its Member States should enhance their contribution to equal, constructive and broad partnerships with key countries, especially along the migratory routes, by changing our focus from managing irregular migration in Europe to supporting refugees as well as host communities in regions of origin," they write.

"If we wish to further our efforts to break the incentive structures that drive irregular migration movements and dangerous journeys towards Europe, complementary efforts are necessary," they add.

The letter, dated 15 May but made public on Thursday, is addressed to the high-ranking officials in the European Commission. Besides Denmark, it is endorsed by Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania and Finland, reflecting a cross-party consensus.

The four-page statement pitches ideas and proposals deliberately designed to partially shift tasks from national authorities to neighbouring countries.

The signatories push for "comprehensive, mutually beneficial and durable partnerships" with nations located along the migratory routes, following the example of the deals that the EU has struck with Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, which earmark millions, or even billions, in EU funds in exchange for stronger border controls.

This strategy, they say, should also build upon the protocol signed last year between Italy and Albania, under which Rome plans to outsource the processing of up to 36,000 asylum applications per year to the Balkan country.

The protocol, done without the intervention of Brussels, differs significantly from the EU deals with Tunisia and Egypt as these do not include provisions to transfer asylum seekers from one place to another, which is highly controversial.

But the signatories believe this is the right way to go and call on the bloc to explore solutions aimed at "rescuing migrants on the high seas and bringing them to a predetermined place of safety in a partner country outside the EU."

The letter appears to be deliberately timed to coincide with the completion of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, the all-encompassing reform that foresees common and collective rules for all member states. The overhaul received its very final approval on Tuesday and will take two years from now to become fully enforceable.

Notably, Denmark, the initiator, has a long-standing opt-out clause from the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice (AFSJ) and is therefore not bound by the New Pact.

The Commission said it would carefully analyse the letter, which it described as "complex" and "comprehensive," and stressed the focus in the coming years would be on the implementation of the agreed-upon reform.

'Complementary efforts'

The signatories praise the New Pact and say it provides a strong legal framework to address irregular migration. However, much more should be done.

Offshoring, they go on, should also apply to the question of returns, a sore point in the EU's migration policy. For years, member states have struggled to ensure that applicants who are denied international protection (because, for example, they are economic migrants) are actually sent back to the countries they came from.

Despite efforts from Brussels and the other capitals, the return rate remains sluggish, ranging between 25% and 30%.

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The coalition of 15 countries says outsourcing can also help in this regard by setting "return hub mechanisms" outside the bloc, "where returnees could be transferred to while waiting their final removal." No specific location is mentioned.

Another proposal would entail sending asylum seekers to a "safe third country alternative" and complete the process there to alleviate the pressure on national authorities. The concept of "safe third country," which the European Commission plans to revise as part of the New Pact, has been repeatedly contested by NGOs, who argue people can face persecution and be mistreated in countries that, on paper, are stable.

Finally, the signatories push for stricter rules to combat the instrumentalisation of migrations, something already foreseen under the New Pact, and crack down on human trafficking and smuggling.

"We reiterate that all new measures must be implemented in full compliance with our international legal obligations, including the principle of non-refoulement, as well as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights," the coalition writes.

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All in all, the letter reads as an unapologetic go-ahead for outsourcing migration and asylum policy, a trend that has gained prominence since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic but is still divisive due to its legal and humanitarian repercussions.

The strong number of signatories – more than half of the 27 member states – suggests the project is poised to climb higher on the agenda and gives an indication of where the bloc will be headed after the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.

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