Infographic by the European Council

EU’s “Historic” Migration Pact Criticized as a Setback for Human Rights

The European Union announced on Thursday, December 21, a ‘political agreement’ aimed at reshaping the union’s immigration policy that critics say is a human rights setback. Dubbed as the New Solidarity Mechanism, the breakthrough consensus was finalized after three years of negotiations among various bodies of the European Union and the member states.

Critics lament that the reforms fail to rectify the persistent issues of EU member states shirking equitable responsibility in sheltering and processing asylum seekers and irregular migrants. Instead, the burden continues to fall disproportionately on countries at the EU’s external borders, incentivizing practices such as unlawful pushbacks and neglect of distressed boats, notably in states like Greece, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus. The proposed ‘solidarity mechanism’ allows states to reject relocation efforts and opt for border fortifications and surveillance measures instead.

Critics say the new policies are “Byzantine in their complexity and Orban-esque in their cruelty.”

The EU claims its new set of regulation is a “landmark” and historic that, when fully adopted, could bring a complete overhaul of the union’s asylum and migration framework. Spanish Minister for the Interior, Fernando Grande-Marlaska Gómez, whose country ‘s presidency of the European Council led the negotiations said the ‘reforms’ target the root causes of the continent’s chronic problem of migration through collaboration with countries and origin and transit. 

Human rights organizations, however, view the Migration Pact as emblematic of the bloc’s disregard for the rights of displaced individuals, diverging starkly from the EU’s foundational values. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the pact a disaster for Migrants and Asylum Seekers. Judith Sunderland, HRW’s associate director for Europe and Central Asia Division wrote, “the European Union’s asylum and migration system will severely curtail the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.”

The agreement includes five critical regulations aimed at addressing the full spectrum of issues in asylum and migration management. These regulations, once adopted, the European Council says are poised to bolster the effectiveness of the European asylum system,  promote increased solidarity among member states, and alleviate   the burden on those receiving the most migrants.

Rights organizations view the Migration Pact as emblematic of the bloc’s disregard for the rights of displaced individuals, diverging starkly from its foundational values.

The new pact gives member states amplified authority in migration management, eclipsing the protection of individuals’ rights. It also capitalizes on the EU’s tendencies to shift responsibilities to neighbouring nations like Libya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Egypt.

According to Judith Sunderland of HRW, the reforms rely heavily on deterrence tactics, which have been historically proven to be ineffective and, in many cases, abusive.

Refugee and migration policies have growingly become a thorny issue for the EU member states. After Germany opened in the wake of the Syrian civil war its doors to over a million refugees from the broader Middle East, European countries have started to regress from their once welcoming policies. Some governments such as Hungry’s Victor Orban publicly voice their contempt for refugees from the Middle East and have closed its doors completely to them. Others, even the traditionally welcoming nations in Scandinavia have also adopted stricter policies of accepting refugees.

The war in Ukraine has brought not only straining economic conditions to the continent making hosting refugees less affordable, but has also opened a new refugee frontline on the EU’s eastern borders in addition to the traditional mediterranean routes from the Middle East and North Africa that end up in Greece and Italy.

One of the most contentious aspects of this new system involves the treatment of irregular arrivals, including those rescued at sea, who will face detention and streamlined asylum procedures devoid of essential safeguards, such as access to legal aid. The new laws subject children as young as six years to fingerprinting and biometric data collection.  

The European Council on Exiles and Refugees, a coalition of independent organizations advocating for migrants’ rights, said the new policies are not only in violation of international human rights laws but also overly complex and thus difficult to navigate. In the organization’s words, they are reminiscent of “Byzantine in their complexity and Orban-esque in their cruelty.” In 10-episode threat on the social platform X, the organization called the introduction of the pact “a dark day for Europe.”

A particularly concerning issue for critics is what the new pact calls ‘crisis regulation.’ These are provisions that grant the EU member countries the leeway to derogate from crucial human rights obligations when facing a vaguely defined ‘mass influx’ or a scenario involving the ‘instrumentalization of migrants by a third country or non-state actor.’

Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch said the move is a step toward legitimizing the denial of the right to asylum.