Countries that refuse to accept the return of failed asylum seekers from the EU will face a crackdown on visas to the bloc, under proposed migration reforms given added urgency after the recent devastating fires at Greece’s Moria refugee camp.
The long-planned Brussels proposals, due to be published next week, seek to encourage nations to take back their citizens using a mixture of carrot and stick, said Ylva Johansson, EU home affairs commissioner. Incentives would include investment pledges.
The plans are part of a broader package that would aim to prevent a repeat of catastrophes such as last week’s blazes, which left thousands homeless and exposed the filthy conditions at the overcrowded Moria facility on the Greek island of Lesbos, she told the Financial Times in an interview.
“With the new proposal, we should have no more Morias,” Ms Johansson said. “The situation in Moria is showing the failure of the policy without a common European migration and asylum [system].”
The conflagration at the camp has exposed the consequences of years of bitter EU internal divisions that have hobbled efforts to overhaul the bloc’s asylum and migration efforts since Syria’s civil war drove a spike in arrivals in 2015-16.
But some observers say there are still few signs of agreement between the 27 EU countries on an effective and humane plan for migrants, with efforts instead focused mainly on stopping people arriving at all.
“Nobody will say ‘Hooray’,” Ms Johansson acknowledged, referring to the likely reaction of EU member states to the new proposals.
Previous EU immigration plans have foundered over the refusal of countries such as Hungary to accept a system in which all member states would take in a compulsory quota of asylum seekers regardless of where they first arrived, or the refusal of southern nations such as Italy to accept one without such a provision.
The latest plans would have “a strong focus” on the return of migrants whose claims for asylum in the EU had failed, the commissioner said.
The average rate of return to home countries for migrants judged to have no right to stay in the EU fell from 35.6 per cent in 2018 to 31.5 per cent in 2019, according to official data.
The relatively low numbers reflect a variety of difficulties, including the refusal of countries to accept responsibility for people whose identity documents may have been lost, destroyed or stolen.
Ms Johansson said she planned to start to use a regulation introduced this year that gives the European Commission powers to restrict countries’ access to visas for the 26-country Schengen zone — the European passport-free travel area — if they did not meet the bloc’s goals for returns.
Conversely, the EU could offer better visa conditions or investments in areas such as education to countries that did comply, she said.
Asked if the EU would threaten to cut aid or axe trade preferences in retaliation for failure to help on returns, Ms Johansson said she did not think this was the right way to deal with countries with which the bloc had “long-term engagement”, saying: “Threatening is not a good way forward.”
Ms Johansson, a Swedish social democrat and former minister who took up her post in December, said she hoped the proposals would help “de-dramatise” migration debates in the EU.
This year, irregular migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean have been just over 50,000, a fraction of the more than 1m who arrived in 2015, sparking a political crisis in the bloc.
Ms Johansson said the immigration package would contain proposals for EU states to show “mandatory solidarity” with the main countries where migrants arrived, although she indicated that could mean providing resources rather than taking in asylum seekers.
“It’s really important that we stand up for our values and that we respect fundamental rights,” she said. “That includes the Geneva [Refugee] Convention and the right to apply for asylum.”