The European Commission published a new Migration Pact on 23rd September 2020 in the attempt to right previous wrongs and balance the ever changing situation. Migrant journeys span a diverse range of factors; security, socio-economic, environmental, political. For hundreds of thousands each year, reaching Europe is the goal and for many, gaining asylum, the prize. 

Today’s world is thoroughly connected; a person in Kabul, Baghdad or Khartoum is able to see what living conditions await them on Europe’s shores. Mobiles and smartphones are essential for a person on the move, and it is through technology that people make crucial decisions about their journey; build their connections and submit their applications. 

Many migrants choose Europe based on admiration of European values (respect, equality, justice and human rights). Yet, the EU’s values are often not in keeping with the conditions migrants and refugees find themselves in. Whether it be slim chances of being granted asylum in a desirable European country, or the quality of the living conditions within Greek island camps, it is no secret that Europe is struggling with their obligations to human rights for third country nationals. 

In 2016 the EU published an agenda on migration, following the massive influx of Syrian refugees fleeing Assad’s regime. The 2016 report emphasised establishing smoother reception conditions, and protection measures to those deemed at risk. It hoped to see the arrival, acceptance and resettlement processes become efficient and straightforward. In 2016, ‘all member states and Norway’ were involved and actively cooperating with EASO (European Asylum Support Office). 

The following years up until 2020 told a different story; Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic came under criticism for their refusal to take in their quota of refugees. Whilst Croatia, Bosnia and Bulgaria have regularly appeared in news reports, due to police push backs of migrants trying to cross their borders

The 2016 agenda has in many ways not lived up to its goals, efficiency at reception centres became more and more difficult to handle with increasing numbers of arrivals and designated funding not stretching far enough. However, there was no way to predict further conflicts which sparked increased migration from Northern Africa, nor the Coronavirus pandemic which has severely impacted any attempts to make a better life for refugees in Europe. 

The 2020 Migration Pact attempts to bandage up these wounds, and make amends: it offers us a ‘fresh start’. The focus this time around, though not explicit, will be on advanced technology which helps to screen people more quickly, and monitor borders. 

1. A common European Framework for migration and asylum agreement

‘New procedures to establish status swiftly on arrival’; this section wishes to deal swiftly with asylum claims that ‘mislead.. Authorities’ and automatically dismiss claims which have already been rejected (leading to a ‘return procedure’). This will limit the number of times people may apply for asylum, and therefore is using administrative measures as an excuse to take a hands off approach.

The section goes on to identify the need to establish both a ‘common framework’ and mandatory solidarity to ensure that member states are taking on their fair share of responsibility. Yet this so-called ‘solidarity’ (which the Cambridge dictionary defines as ‘support for the members of a group’), will now take its form in funding for return of migrants, or their relocation elsewhere. How this constitutes support for anyone other than the EU member country is unclear. Though it does mention the ‘possibility’ of showing solidarity in other ways, which would do well to warrant more emphasis.

The section regarding minors puts forward the clearest ideals and somewhat lenient procedures in comparison to the majority of the pact. Excluding children from ‘border procedures together with their families’ presumably means they are also exempt from biometric data gathering (fingerprinting and iris scanning). This data gathering is collated into the EU’s identification database (EURODAC). Aside from this, it presses the need for resources to be given to designated guardians; family reunification, and stopping traffickers’ contact with minors. Children and other minors will be made a priority in the coming years. 

The section then turns to the backing of EURODAC. Member states will have access to the database, and it will be used by governments to monitor movements and activities of migrants who have entered Europe. It is legitimate to have monitoring systems, yet it is crucial to ensure that this data held by the EU is protected, and will not be used for arbitrary gain, especially when many people in the database have sought asylum for socio-political reasons. 

2. A robust crisis preparedness and response system

Sums the EU’s plan to strengthen their response frameworks in the face of force majeure and other crises. A large number of illegal migrant arrivals is noted as constituting such a crisis. ‘Integrated border management’ incorporates measures to reinforce efficient management of EU borders. By improving ‘the EU’s reaction capacity’ it will likely mean increasing funding to security agencies like Frontex. 

By 2025 a ‘digital visa’ process has been planned, this will require capturing of facial images scanners, and automated ‘robot’ guards on borders to facilitate. We hope that these new systems are built on ethical data, ethical algorithms, and do not discriminate. 

Reports have shown how the EU’s deliberate reluctance to authorise search and rescue operations at sea has cost lives . Commercial and NGO boats (like SeaWatch) have often stepped in at this point, rescued people in the mediterranean, and then have been refused entry to dock in European sea ports – leaving them stranded at sea for weeks. 

This dilemma, and apathetic approach to obligation, the EU has not answered. Its agencies EUROSUR and FRONTEX, along with national coastguards, are responsible for monitoring Europe’s borders. Having been caught out ignoring distress signals from boats seeking to land in Europe, the EU cannot deny that each new boat is unwanted. “The EU will strengthen cooperation with countries of origin and transit” it states, to prevent more and more illegal journeys. Europe has previously cooperated with and funded the Libyan coast guard, to prevent and capture boats en route across the sea. A well planned procedure, if Libya had not descended into a detention centre for migrants from all over the African continent. 

3. The fight against migrant smuggling

An interesting point here highlights the decriminalisation of at-sea rescue. For private actors this has been a huge contention, as individuals volunteering on charity-run rescue boats have been arrested by European authorities. Decriminalising the act of saving lives is a big step for the EU. Under this vein they will publish ‘information campaigns on the risks of irregular migration’ where EU agencies will seek to partner with the African Union and the Western Balkans. 

Informing would-be migrants is important, too often people have idealistic misconceptions about journeys to Europe, or are lied to by their smugglers. So to provide a more realistic view is indeed valid, yet fails to account for those with no other choice than an illegal passage. The people in this grey area do not have an answer as far as the EU is concerned, often ‘legal alternatives’ are just not accessible. 

It is good to note that planned continuation of migration programmes outside of the EU is marked as a priority alongside ‘addressing the root causes of irregular migration’. 

4. Partnerships to strengthen migration governance and management

In a more concerning shift, the report notes that Frontex personnel will be cooperating with Western Balkans border guards; by training or providing resources to further strengthen Balkan borders such as Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia (who often experience high numbers of irregular migration). 

Considering that many Balkan borders have been associated with police brutality towards migrants, it is unclear how exactly Frontex will be further strengthening such borders and in what manner. 

Furthermore, Frontex will be helping to ‘optimise voluntary return’. Based on previous return projects, this will assumingly aim to provide incentives for migrants, in order to decongest Europe as it is now. Migrants are given the option of staying in an overcrowded refugee camp, waiting for an answer to their application – or to be returned to their home country with a financial package. These options have been carefully packaged by the EU and they do make leaving Europe seem more attractive for migrants.

5. Attracting skills and talent 

This section focuses on the labour market availability within the EU and it’s accessibility to migrants. The pact acknowledges the importance of attracting highly skilled talent from across the world to the EU, working with the ‘directive on students and researchers’ and ‘talent partnerships’ to facilitate this. Furthermore, that ‘third country skilled workers’ would be eligible to join the EU talent pool. 

Though important for economic recovery following the global pandemic – attracting only skilled workers is both exclusionary and will not aid in Europe’s labour market recovery. The need for workers in lower skilled positions, agriculture and farming has risen dramatically since Europe closed its borders to many countries during the height of the pandemic. This has meant vacant positions are not being filled by third country nationals while travel between many countries remains on the ‘red’ list. 

To conclude, the pact is offering Europe a chance to redeem its previous care of migrants. It is vital that the EU holds true to its values, and protect the people who desperately need shelter. Further, that new technology does not supersede our humanity; people are not solely here to be ‘processed’ nor are they a problem to be solved. 

Notable resources:

On December 14th 2020, StateWatch will host a webinar: “Deportation Union: Rights, accountability and the EU’s push to increase forced removals”. 

EuroPol has set up an Innovation Lab for the discussed technology

How the UK is handling asylum seekers under the Brexit negotiations

For daily news from reporters and NGOs working on the ground: Are You Syrious 


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