In September 2020, the European Commission is scheduled to present its proposal for a new Pact on Asylum and Migration to modernise the common European asylum system.

This is an opportunity to take a different approach than what we see today and to focus on upholding rights and protection. In her State of the Union address in 2020, president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, said that: “We will take a human and humane approach. Saving lives at sea is not optional. And those countries who fulfil their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of our whole European Union.”

This is, however, not an easy task. After years of handling asylum and migration issues as a crisis, several issues should be dealt with.

What is Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’

In 2015, the number of people arriving in the EU by crossing the Mediterranean Sea or through mixed migration routes in Southeast Europe surpassed one million people. More than twice as many as the previous year. They were primarily fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

On paper, this looked like a manageable task to 28 member states with a combined population of close to 500 million people if they pulled together in solidarity. Yet, the situation sowed division among EU member states, several of whom resorted to harsh legal measures and unilateral border closures leaving most of the responsibility to a few countries at the EU’s external borders.

This has had considerable consequences not just for those countries, but also for people crossing the Mediterranean in search of safety and protection in Europe. A series of border closures along the so-called Balkans-route and the controversial EU-Turkey deal led the numbers to decline, despite unresolved conflicts, including in Syria, and a general and steady increase in forcibly displaced people across the world.

While it may have looked like the EU solved its ‘refugee crisis’ it did not mean fewer people in need of protection, it just meant that the protection crisis was out of sight. 

More than anything, Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ was a political crisis due to a lack of will to share responsibility.

More than anything, Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ was a political crisis due to a lack of will to share responsibility.

An asylum bottleneck in Greece

As the number of asylum seekers arriving in the EU began to climb in 2015, Greece became a main point of entry into the European Union. A combination of a bottleneck in the treatment of asylum applications in Greece and a lack of will to relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU member states means that many refugee camps in Greece are heavily overcrowded.

An example is the notorious Moria camp on the island of Lesvos, which burned to the ground in September 2020 rendering more than 12,000 asylum seekers living in and around the camp homeless. The camp’s official capacity was less than 3,000 people.

Pushbacks in the Western Balkans

One reaction to the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015 was for the EU to seek to strengthen its external borders. The consequences of this are particularly visible in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Transit corridors from Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro all merge here making the country one of the most travelled mixed migration routes. According to the UNHCR, Bosnia and Herzegovina today hosts almost 9,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Recently, staff from DRC and other NGO’s in Bosnia and Herzegovina have documented numerous cases of people being forcibly and sometimes violently pushed back from the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia - an EU member state.

These practices include theft, extortion, destruction of property, physical abuse and degrading treatment, and denial of access to asylum procedures. This is in breach of the right to seek asylum and the principle of non-refoulement - the principle that forbids countries from returning asylum seekers to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution.

This man recounts being pushed back across the Croatian border into the ice-cold river Korana dividing Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Jan Grarup, 2019

A dangerous journey across the Mediterranean

Many refugees, asylum seekers and migrants reach Europe’s shores by crossing the Mediterranean Sea along the central-Mediterranean route, from North Africa across the Mediterranean to Italy. But it is a dangerous journey often undertaken in dinghies and decrepit fishing boats.

According to the UNCHR, the estimated loss of lives in the Mediterranean Sea reached almost 20,000 between 2014 and 2019. Yet, the question of naval search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean is also a source of political contestation in the EU.

Apart from the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean, the dangers for refugees and migrants along this route are manifold; exposure to discriminatory laws, the risk of detention, kidnapping, forced labour or rape. These dangers should not be exacerbated by the EU’s approach to asylum and migration.

Therefore, the new Pact also offers an opportunity for Europe to prioritise humanitarian principles when renewing its partnerships, and to ensure it truly stands for the protection of the most vulnerable groups.

How should the new pact look?

The consequences of the reaction to Europe's 'refugee crisis' clearly demonstrate the need for a new approach to asylum and migration – a truly “human and humane approach”.

But they also demonstrate that it should be an approach with a clear focus on upholding rights and protecting people, not just borders. Any new approach to asylum and migration will not work properly if it does not include a functioning solidarity mechanism.

The Danish Refugee Council has five recommendations for a balanced approach to asylum and migration with rights and solutions at the core.

Note: On 23 September 2020, the European Commission presented its proposal for a new Pact on Asylum and Migration. It is one that suggests a wide range of worrying propositions when it comes to the treatment of people seeking protection in the European Union.