The EU’s new migration deal: Malta’s take

A look at the agreed overhaul of the EU’s migration and asylum procedures from the perspective of the bloc’s smallest, frontline Member State.

Last Wednesday the European Parliament and the Council of the EU reached a political agreement on new rules to handle irregular arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants in the European Union.

The accord, known as the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, signals a greater willingness within the Union to address the challenges posed by migration, which mainly occurs via dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea on poorly equipped boats.

Through its Minister for Home Affairs, Law Enforcement, and National Security, Byron Camilleri, Malta voiced its position that it regards the agreement as failing to reach the right balance between solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between Member States in this field. Owing to its geopolitical location and other realities, the smallest EU country feels the agreement fails to give the necessary guarantees that its needs will be fully met, and will not translate into a just and effective system able to withstand current and future challenges.

What was agreed?

Under the new system, countries who are not at the EU border – unlike Malta – have two options: they can either take in a standard annual quota of 30,000 asylum applicants or deposit at least €20,000 per asylum seeker into an EU fund. These provisions aim to encourage countries not at EU borders to play a role in managing the migration issue.

Furthermore, the pact seeks to strengthen the screening process, to identify genuine asylum seekers and establish uniform rules concerning the identification of non-EU nationals upon their arrival, thus increasing the security within the Schengen area. It also aims to expedite decision-making procedures on granting asylum or deportation.

The European Commission presented the proposal for a New Pact on Migration and Asylum in September 2020. In it, it presented a comprehensive approach to migration by integrating it into all aspects of the Union’s external policy, including development aid and economic cooperation, among others. The aim was to establish better communication channels with third countries, focusing on legal entry and visa policies. The concept of “partnerships to attract talent” suggests a common approach to legal labour immigration, with specific details yet to be clarified.

It’s been a long time coming

The Asylum and Immigration Pact has been crucial for the EU since 2015. Europe experienced a substantial influx of refugees around that year, primarily due to the conflict in Syria. By the end of 2022, Europe hosted approximately one-third of the world’s refugees (36%).

Many believe this new Pact is the solution, especially through reforming the Common European Asylum System, which is a set of regulations and measures established by the EU to create a unified approach to asylum procedures across EU Member States.

Proposals started in 2016, and negotiations revealed different Member State interests. Frontline states like Malta initially wanted an automatic relocation system, having received a fair share of asylum applications. Others preferred flexible solidarity, including financial aid or capacity building, while some opposed relocating asylum seekers.

Malta, staying constructive, adjusted its stance during negotiations. It accepted varied solidarity forms and supported mandatory border procedures for specific groups. However, Malta consistently stressed the need for a balanced approach between solidarity and fair responsibility sharing, advocating for a permanent and mandatory mechanism to address challenges faced by Member States dealing with migration pressures.

“Despite seven years of negotiations, a comprehensive agreement that fulfils these objectives or creates an effective system for current and future challenges hasn’t been reached,” a spkesperson for the Ministry for Home Affairs, Security, Reforms, and Equality told The Journal.

Malta’s stance

The Maltese government spokesperson claimed that the current asylum system already places heavy responsibilities on frontline Member States. Given the Malta’s small size and geographical vulnerability to sudden large arrivals, the system significantly strains its asylum and reception systems.

“While acknowledging positive changes from the Pact, Malta remains concerned about the agreement’s impact on the Dublin criteria, introducing new responsibilities and shorter time limits that pose challenges for smaller administrations,” said the spokesperson. By means of the Dublin Regulation, decisions are made quickly on which EU Member State is responsible for an asylum claim. The Regulation then allows the transfer of the asylum seeker to that country. This helps prevent applicants from applying for asylum in multiple Member States.

“Additionally,” the spokesperson added, “mandatory border procedures, though appealing on paper, are unlikely to be effective for maritime borders and may not prevent arrivals or reduce secondary movements.” Secondary movements occur when refugees or asylum-seekers move from the country in which they first arrive to seek protection or for permanent resettlement elsewhere.

The Ministry respresentative explained that the new Migration and Asylum Pact won’t address Malta’s current challenges, especially with a rising number of irregular arrivals to the EU, notably through the Central Mediterranean route which has seen a 62% increase this year. The Central Mediterranean Route between the Libyan, Tunisian, Maltese and Italian search-and-rescue areas is one of the most frequented and dangerous irregular migration routes, with a high number of migrants drowning while attempting to cross each year

It’s expected that asylum applications in the EU might reach a record one million this year, with concerns over the surge in arrivals and applications from countries like Bangladesh and Tunisia with low recognition rates. A low recognition rate exposes potential future asylum seekers to the risk of being sent back to their country of origin or to other countries of transit that are not their chosen country of destination.

The Ministry further highlighted two key objectives that may stand in the way of progress:

Firstly, mandatory solidarity, though required, remains flexible, allowing Member States to contribute financially or through other means instead of relocation. “Despite some flexibility being acceptable, we believe that irregular migration pressures can’t be solely addressed through financial means. Relocation, especially for small Member States like ours, remains the most effective tool,” said the spokesperson.

Secondly, and perhaps more worrisome, is the lack of assurances that identified needs, including relocation, will be fully met within the solidarity component. The proposed mechanism, relying on pledges, allows Member States to request reductions in contributions, potentially leading to significant shortfalls in solidarity and continued pressure on frontline Member States.

The Ministry observed that, while Malta has never avoided its responsibilities and has supported measures like screening and quicker asylum procedures, for an efficient system there needs to be a better balance between responsibility and solidarity, something which it believes is currently lacking.

The EP President’s stance

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola hailed the newly struck migration deal as a historic achievement, acknowledging its imperfections while firmly rejecting accusations of aligning with far-right ideologies. She asserted that the agreement represented a pragmatic compromise forged among centrist political forces.

In a thinly veiled criticism of Metsola’s stance, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri took to Facebook to assert that those who portray the agreement as a panacea for the migration crisis will face a reckoning from European and Maltese citizens once the true reality of its effectiveness emerges in the coming months.

Strong criticism from human right activists

Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have strongly criticised the Pact, asserting that it significantly curtails asylum rights for those entering the EU irregularly.

Their concerns include the absence of legal representation at borders, the potential for deportation during the appeal stage of their claim, and the suspension of certain legal protections if a member state suspects that individuals are being “pushed” or trafficked from a third country.

What’s next?

What happend on Wednesday was that EU Member States agreed on the proposed updated migration policies. The political agreement now needs to go through several steps. First, following discussions at the technical level, it has to be formally approved by the European Parliament and by the Council. Once approved, the pact is formally adopted with the final text. Talks are expected to continue at a technical level up until February 2024, with a formal adoption expected before the European Parliament elections in June 2024.

Next, all Member States start applying the pact’s provisions, adjusting their internal procedures accordingly. EU institutions and States then monitor how the Pact is working and assess its impact. Over time, if needed, the pact might be adjusted or changed based on new developments.

European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson cautioned that the freshly agreed-upon migration deal would not be immediately implemented across the EU, primarily due to the need for Member States to transpose some of the provisions into national legislation.

When asked what’s next for Malta, the spokesperson for the Ministry for Home Affairs, Security, Reforms, and Equality said that “nationally, we will persist in implementing a fair migration policy, providing protection to those genuinely in need while being firm with those who misuse the system and lack a legal right to be on our territory. Our ongoing efforts have yielded positive results, evident in the sharp decrease in irregular arrivals over the past three years and a substantial increase in the number of returns”.

Malta’s end goal is a collective, collaborative, and humane approach, ensuring alignment with EU principles and objectives.

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