The European Commission is pushing for more and faster deportations of asylum seekers, as well as a significant step up in cooperation between EU countries in its latest attempt to solve deadlock regarding sorely needed reform.
The EU migration system has come under increasing pressure in recent years, with bottlenecks forming at external borders. Most acknowledge the system must change, but the 27 states are deeply divided on how to proceed.
After months of delays, the European Union’s executive arm proposed wide-sweeping changes on Wednesday that focus on more efficiently returning rejected asylum seekers and a permanent mechanism to unburden front-line states.
"If you don't have the right to stay, you will be returned. And this is what European citizens ask from us," EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said during the presentation of the long-awaited package.
To achieve a higher rate of returns, the EU executive proposed faster asylum-processing procedures at the border.
One of the key suggestions is that all asylum-seeking arrivals would be subject to a mandatory pre-entry screening process, including a health and security check.
Within a maximum of five days, it would be decided whether to send the person through the normal asylum procedure or an expedited border procedure, which would take a maximum of 12 weeks, including appeals.
Rights organizations are worried that this border procedure might lead to even more people being detained at the EU's external borders.
Human rights organization Oxfam slammed the suggested changes.
“The new proposals now will likely replicate the abhorrent situation we have been witnessing for years in the Greek EU ‘hotspots’, where entire families have been put in actual or de facto detention, and people seeking asylum have limited to no access to health care and other basic services," said Marrissa Ryan, head of the organization's EU office.
The normal procedure has also been heavily criticized, as it takes up to several years, depending on the member state.
Previous attempts failed
The proposal is likely to face opposition from all sides. It is far from certain that they will be approved by EU leaders and the European Parliament. Previous attempts have failed.
While highlighting the importance of a new system, Johansson admitted its controversy.
"I think nobody would say hooray," the commissioner told reporters before the launch.
Countries at the edge of the bloc have long called for a complete reform of the asylum system. Under current EU rules, the country where people first arrive generally has to process their asylum claims, meaning countries with external borders carry a disproportionate burden.
While some countries argue for a mechanism to automatically redistribute asylum seekers, others - such as Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary - strongly oppose this.
Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said Vienna would fight against "introducing a distribution mechanism through the back door," but added that there were positives to the plan.
To address the overburdening, at least partially, the commission proposes to send an asylum seeker to another country if some conditions are met, for example if they have siblings there or if they have previously studied in that country, instead of processing their claim in the country of arrival.
In the wake of a fire earlier this month at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, which hosted some 12,000 people, the commission also proposed a solidarity mechanism for crisis moments.
Overwhelmed countries could also activate a so-called "mandatory solidarity mechanism," according to the proposal. The commission would assess such situations and determine how much support the country would need.
Under an acute crisis level, so-called "mandatory solidarity" would kick in - a tool under which EU countries would be obliged - according to their economic output and population - to support the struggling member state either by taking in migrants or by assisting in the return of those migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected.
This point is particularly contentious and risks upsetting countries that are opposed to mandatory reallocation procedures. While the commission highlighted that the countries could choose between taking in migrants and assist in the deportation of others, it remained unclear on Wednesday what would happen if nor enough countries offer relocation of migrants to their countries.
Nonetheless, the commission remained hopeful that EU countries will overcome their differences.
“It’s unthinkable that Europe in 2020 still does not have a proper, single, cohesive migration and asylum policy,” commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas said.