The New Pact: Supporting or constraining mobility out of protracted displacement?

By Caitlin Katsiaficas and Martin Wagner, ICMPD

The European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum is aimed at breaking years of political deadlock on the reform of a coordinated approach to asylum and migration management in the region. In doing so, it hopes to build a stronger and more common system across Member States that is durable in the face of migratory pressures and external shocks. In taking a multipronged approach to the issue, the Pact’s proposed measures have several important implications – both positive and negative – for the mobility of displaced persons already in or aiming to reach the European Union.

What does the Pact envision?

Overall, a key goal of the Pact is to minimise and address ‘irregular arrivals’ to the continent. With this, the Commission wants to reduce migrant smuggling and human trafficking as well as secondary movements within the region. This also includes the ramping up of returns of people found to be ineligible for a protection status. The Pact thus aims to limit some forms of mobility while facilitating others. Preventing mobility to, at and within the EU’s borders leads to situations of limbo, as we have seen, for instance, in the Western Balkans and northern France. In an attempt to address situations of limbo, the Pact proposes rapid border screenings that swiftly channel people into quick border, asylum and return procedures, aiming to streamline coordination across these processes. But while it is important to provide applicants with an efficient decision on their claim for protection, these measures will be difficult to implement in practice and may be at odds with fundamental procedural rights. Moreover, if there is no way for people to move out of the system, congestion will remain a key problem, as seen on the Greek islands.

Debates surrounding what solidarity means have been a key factor contributing to the EU’s political gridlock. Mobility is central to the proposed new solidarity mechanism, which envisions that Member States will choose mainly between relocating asylum seekers and sponsoring the return of those found ineligible to stay. It also calls for a coordinated, systematic approach to swiftly disembarking migrants rescued at sea (including relocation), moving away from problematic ad hoc responses. These solidarity measures would increase movement across and from the continent. In addition to political will among Member States, another key question is how the individual interests of displaced people would be taken into account – an element, if not properly considered, that may prevent people from finding sustainable solutions.

After arriving on European shores, many asylum seekers wish to move to another Member State where they know someone or think their opportunities will be greater. The Pact proposes amending the Long Term Residence Directive to allow recipients of international protection to receive long-term resident status after three years of legal and continuous residence. This would grant mobility rights to this population earlier than the current five-year requirement, including to work or study in another Member State.

Only a fraction of displaced people ends up in Europe – 85% are hosted by low- and middle-income countries. The Commission’s proposal encourages the expansion of refugee resettlement, including through private or community sponsorship in Europe, in which individuals and civil society organisations financially, logistically and socially support the arrival and integration of refugees. As with search-and-rescue operations, the Pact acknowledges the need to shift from an ad hoc to a more stable and planned resettlement system. Although it encourages EU Member States to increase the number of resettlement slots, they are able to carry over 2020 resettlement pledges into 2021 next year because of COVID-19, thus slowing down the expansion of resettlement. While efforts to promote resettlement are promising, the number of places currently pledged are not sufficient to make a real dent in the global need: The roughly 30,000 pledged spots for 2020 (one-fifth of which are from the outgoing United Kingdom) translate to just 2% of the 1.4 million people in need, according to UNHCR. Additionally, the Pact prioritises certain geographies for political reasons, including the main countries hosting Syrian refugees and key countries along the Central Mediterranean route. In doing so, it overlooks several long-standing displacement situations, including several in Africa and the Middle East.

In addition to refugee resettlement, the Pact aims to expand complementary pathways to protection, including via work and study opportunities as well as humanitarian corridors and family reunification. Like with refugee resettlement, this effort is important to increasing avenues to protection and thus promoting solutions to displacement, even if its small scope limits its ultimate impact. Increasing such opportunities will necessitate that EU countries adapt legal migration processes to take into account the specific situation of displaced people. Employment-based legal pathways, for example, may require documentation of education or professional qualifications, which refugees often lack. Assessing soft skills or waving some of the pre-conditions will be among the many changes needed if the EU is serious about enabling more refugees to utilise their skills and realise their full potential in Europe.

What does this mean for mobility and solutions to protracted displacement?

The Pact thus works to both facilitate and constrain the mobility of displaced persons who have already arrived in or hope to journey to the EU to find a solution to their displacement. However, while the Pact outlines many specific ways in which mobility will be constrained, offering accompanying legislative proposals, the mobility-facilitating elements of the Pact are kept relatively vague and are to be dealt with at a later point. Creating proposals to facilitate mobility with a similar level of detail as those constricting it would have created a more balanced vision that also signalled to refugees and major host countries the EU’s commitment to finding solutions to displacement. Moreover, the proposed measures have raised several unresolved questions – although negotiations will of course be key to shaping the final measures, if an agreement is indeed found to end the current impasse.

In our research for the TRAFIG project, we have seen the importance of mobility as a strategy to cope with protracted displacement – a situation in which nearly 8 in 10 refugees find themselves. Thus, although a strong EU external border is a key preoccupation of the Pact, the EU would do well to seriously consider the needs of people living in situations of protracted displacement. While the so-called migrant crisis of 2015-16 has clearly left its mark on EU migration policy and narratives, as Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johannsson pointed out in a speech on 1 October, “We do not have a migration crisis now [in Europe]. But a lot of migrants, and especially migrant children, are in a crisis.” Without a significant scaling up of resettlement and legal pathways and without sufficient support for major refugee host countries, tragic events like the fire in Moria or capsizing boats in the Mediterranean will continue. Alternatively, the EU has the potential to be a global leader in refugee resettlement and complementary pathways, and thus in expanding solutions for displaced persons. In this context, it is important to more explicitly address and prioritise people in protracted displacement situations.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the TRAFIG Consortium or the European Commission (EC). TRAFIG is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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