The European Union’s executive has proposed overhauling the bloc’s broken migration and asylum rules, seeking to end years of feuds and bitterness over the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.
The most contentious element of the plan released on Wednesday would impose a legal obligation on each state to host some refugees – something eastern nations including Poland and Hungary are against – as well as helping in other ways under “mandatory solidarity”.
Each state would receive 10,000 euros ($11,750) per adult taken in, funded from the bloc’s budget.
Endless rows over where to locate refugees and migrants have caused bad blood between the Mediterranean-shore countries where they mainly come, the reluctant easterners, and the richer northern states where many of the new arrivals aspire to live.
The bloc was caught off guard in 2015 when more than a million people made it to EU shores, overwhelming security and welfare networks, and fomenting far-right sentiment.
“Migration is complex, the old system to deal with it in Europe no longer works,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, unveiling the new blueprint. “Moria is a stark reminder,” she added, referring to a fire that destroyed a migrant camp on the Greek island of Lesbos this month.
The bloc’s top migration official said the 2015/16 crisis was over, with the EU now receiving some 1.5 million net new foreigners coming legally to live and work per year, compared to only 140,000 asylum seekers arriving irregularly.
“We need these people,” said Swedish EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.
The executive European Commission’s plans to overhaul its defunct system include scratching a rule that the first EU country of arrival be responsible for asylum requests, which put too much burden on Mediterranean nations.
Under the proposal, those arriving would be assigned to specific countries based on family links, history of education or work, or having a visa issued by a member state.
Emphasis on returning refugees
The 450-page proposals spanning five different pan-EU laws emphasise sending back those who fail to win asylum. “It’s necessary to have the acceptance of EU citizens to relocate (host) those who have the right to stay to be able to send back those who are not eligible,” said Johansson.
The plan, intended to be in place from 2023 but sure to stir up heated disputes, would also aim to open more legal routes for refugees and migrants, and work more closely with countries hosting and managing people before they reach Europe.
It would also put EU countries with external borders under closer monitoring to ensure they do not violate the law after reports of pushbacks in Hungary, Croatia, Greece and Malta.
Under the plan, people rescued at sea would have to be relocated in the bloc – rather than sent back – and Brussels said charities involved in rescues should not be criminalised.
At times of regular immigration, all EU states would be obliged to help under the new idea of “mandatory solidarity” by relocating or returning people, or offering material assistance on the ground in arrival countries.
If, however, a country were falling under significant pressure, it could seek to activate a crisis mechanism under which its EU peers would be obliged to take people in or send them back.
The complex system would eventually lead to each EU country having to take in some refugees.
The plan faces an uphill battle despite having German Chancellor Angela Merkel as its driving force.
After opening Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees back in 2015, Merkel suffered electoral setbacks as the far right surged on anti-immigration sentiment.
But in a sign of changing mood, German mayors offered this month to take in refugees after the Lesbos camp fire. Protesters took to the streets in some cities, chanting “We have space!”.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Lesbos, Greece, said: “It sounds like they are going to tighten border controls, and they are also going to expedite for those who don’t have asylum to return back to their countries or origin.
“If you look at it here [Lesbos], about policy affecting people, I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything. These people remain in a situation many people will tell you is inhumane. There is one meal a day.
“Europe is very clear that it is divided about taking in many people. Many countries don’t want that.”
“What has been announced today, if we read between the lines, is not going to make the situation any easier for these people, certainly not right now.”