Refugees flee across the Mediterranean in an iconic 2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency

Europe’s New Migration Deal, Explained

Leaders of the EU held a summit that lasted into the predawn hours last week, trying to come to an agreement on the issue of irregular migration. The final agreement is short on details, but appears to be a further step in shirking its responsibilities towards migrants.

Although irregular migration has dropped 90 percent since its peak in 2015, populist politicians throughout the bloc have seized on the issue. Some countries, such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have rejected any attempt to resettle within their borders the estimated 160,000 refugees currently in overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy. As has been the case since the refugee crisis in 2015, this leaves Greece and Italy bearing the lion’s share of the burden of irregular migration, a situation now categorically rejected by Italy’s new right-wing populist government.

Even countries that have taken in refugees are feeling the political strain from the situation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is struggling to keep together her current coalition government with the center-left Social Democrats, with migration becoming the central issue threatening to tear apart her center right CDU party and its more conservative Bavarian CSU allies. Asylum applications in Germany in 2018 are down 20 percent from the same point in 2017, but the CSU wants all asylum seekers previously registered in other countries unilaterally turned away from the German border. Complicating the issue is CSU’s alliance with neighboring Austria and its increasingly far right government led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on trying to close the EU’s outer borders. The issue of migration brought Kurz to power, and he looks adamant to continue pushing hardline ideas on immigration as Austria takes over the rotating presidency of the EU.

Infighting Among European Politicians is intensifying just as migrant routes are once again shifting.

Chaos and rampant mistreatment in Libya, along with an increasingly hostile reception by Italy and Malta, means migrants are shifting away from the Central Mediterranean route in favor of the Western Mediterranean route to Spain and a revised Balkan route through Turkey and Greece. Much like what happened following the controversial EU-Turkey deal in 2016, this will change which countries are left to face the initial burden of irregular migration, as well as which countries will likely see an increase in asylum applications.

With so many disagreements on how to address the problem, the end agreement gave a little for everyone to be happy, but with little idea of how it will actually be implemented. At the core of this new approach is the establishment of “processing centers”, both inside the EU for migrants who have already arrived, but more important outside the bloc to prevent migrants from making the journey at all. Part of this may include requiring any potential asylum seekers to make their claims at these centers and deny them the ability to apply on EU soil, a dramatic change in general asylum policy. 

This proposal mirrors Australia’s policy of offshore processing, a model many in the EU have been critical of in the past and remains highly controversial. In a recent review of human rights in Australia by the UN Human Rights Committee, the government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in its offshore detention program featured prominently as an example of where Australia violated its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But far-right and nativist groups throughout Europe have advocated for the EU to follow Australia’s example as the only possible way forward. 

The current focus of potential offshore processing centers is North Africa, where countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Niger and Egypt would establish and maintain the centers in exchange for increased money and aid. Alternatively, non-EU states in the Balkans such as Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia have been floated as a possibility in the hopes of shutting down the “new” Balkan route from Greece.

But it doesn’t look like the EU consulted with any of these countries before announcing their plans. For their part, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have already rejected the idea of EU processing centers within its borders. Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita called the proposals unhelpful and counterproductive following a meeting with his Spanish counterpart last week. If that position holds, it could kill the entire idea of North African centers as it would do little to intercept migrants on Western Mediterranean route.

Likewise, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia have all rejected – in very strong terms – the idea they would host such centers or camps. That categorical rejection is a little surprising given that Albania and Montenegro are potential candidates for EU accession. But all three countries have been clear that such camps are unacceptable. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama criticized the plans as “dumping desperate people somewhere like toxic waste that no one wants.”

In many ways last week’s summit was a desperate attempt by Merkel and her allies in France and Spain to reign in the more nationalist governments of the bloc.

But the agreement reached is looking to be more flash than substance when it comes to implementation. However the agreement is still concerning as it marks a growing departure from a platform of human rights and treating migrants with the dignity. 

It also attempts to push the problem off on other countries rather than deal with the root problems causing record level displacement and migration. In that regard, last week’s the marathon summit is more a piece of political theater than even the most modest step forward.