The discussion on the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, introduced by the European Commission on September 23rd last, is one of several sensitive topics that the Portuguese EU Council Presidency has inherited. At a particularly hard time, when lockdowns were decreed and borders were closed for health security reasons and further restrictions on the mobility of people were put in place – including between Member States – the situation of many thousands of migrants and refugees has become even more unbearable. Proof of this is the way the pandemic has ravaged the refugee camps in Europe, which still do not enjoy minimum sanitary conditions, habitability, and dignity in addition to the fact that it is difficult – or even impossible – to secure quick and fair access to vaccination plans. 

The new Pact, according to the Commission, states that migration must have a balanced, united and responsible collective response from all EU Member States – through a mechanism that provides for the resettlement of migrants and refugees or the repatriation of those proven not to be entitled to international protection. However, the criticism addressed to the proposal of the European Commission by all kinds of Civil Society Organisations focuses on the balance between accountability and solidarity. In an attempt by the executive to find solutions to overcome the blockades imposed by countries such as Hungary and Poland, the new Pact may be too focused on the priority of improving the mechanisms of securitization and deportation of people who arrive in the territory of the European Union. 

Aimed at “reinforcing trust” and “ensuring a migration management system that is predictable and reliable”, the new Pact on Migration and Asylum proposes: 

  1. Procedures for asylum and migration management; 
  2. Management of the Schengen and external borders, and restoring all their characteristics; 
  3. Real solidarity between Member States as migrants arrive in large numbers; 
  4. Prioritisation of selective migration with focus on the proportion of the population that is highly qualified and possesses technical expertise in relevant areas; 
  5. Enhancement of cooperation on migration issues under international partnerships with the main countries of origin and transit; 
  6. Flexibility and resilience, namely in crisis situations. 

In a context where nationalist and illiberal movements are gaining ground on the European continent, the EU’s approach to migration has been strongly marked by a logic of securitization, to the detriment of policies focusing on human rights and this will hardly contribute to addressing the issues at hand. The implementation of a new Pact, which strengthens solidarity among Member States and humanely and fairly welcomes and protects those seeking refuge, instead of a policy that is far too focused on reducing flows by imposing barriers to entry into EU territory, is now the main challenge of the Portuguese Presidency. Though tough, this is the task that Portugal must clearly shoulder, as a country that is traditionally open to the integration of migrants and asylum seekers. 

On the priorities of the Presidency, the Portuguese government advocates the building of a “Resilient Europe”, for promoting European recovery, cohesion and values. To this end, among other undertakings, it believes it is necessary “to continue the negotiations of the new Pact on Migration and Asylum, in order to establish a comprehensive and integrated Europe-wide approach, striking a balance between preventing irregular immigration, promoting sustainable channels for legal migration and integrating migrants, whilst safeguarding human rights.” 

The Portuguese government says it is working, politically and technically on the concept of “flexible compulsory solidarity”, by establishing the criteria and the ways to materialise this jointly with Member States. Portugal supports discussion in three dimensions: 

  • The external dimension of migratory policies, based on the principle that migration is a joint European challenge that must include dialogue with neighbouring third countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, and enhance cooperation with these countries, the development of pathways for legal migration and mechanisms set up in the countries of origin for the prevention of irregular migration, and collaboration when migrants return; 
  • External EU border control, under FRONTEX, which entails reinforcing human, financial and technological resources; 
  • The balance between the principles of responsibility and solidarity, ensured by all Member States to respond to the challenges of migration. 

On January 28th, the 27 ministers of Internal Affairs and the Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, met in an informal conference call chaired by the Portuguese Minister Eduardo Cabrita. They sought to find “common ground” for the Pact on Migration and Asylum put forward by the European Commission. This was the first time the European ministers had met after the European Commission submitted the new proposal. However, at a time when countries are once again strengthening their borders and limiting mobility between countries to stop the spread of Covid-19, discussions during the Ministerial meeting evolved mostly around the topic of free movement within the Schengen area. And the joint declarations of the European Commission and the Portuguese Minister of Internal Affairs, after the meeting, suggested that little progress was achieved in the discussion on the Pact: “Migrations are a topic on which commitments are needed and are not easy”, says Johansson. 

Meanwhile, the Portuguese Presidency underscored the intention to hold a council meeting with the Ministers of Internal and Foreign Affairs to discuss the external dimension of migratory policies. This will be a key moment for the Portuguese Presidency of the EU to reject the conditionality approach to managing migratory flows imposed on partner countries as a determining criterion for the EU’s development policies and to consider the high risk of increasing the so-called “brain drain” phenomenon, by seeking to “attract talent that the EU needs”. At the same time, it must be ensured that Civil Society Organizations are involved and participate actively in the process of devising the tools and mechanisms needed for implementing the new Pact, since every day they are on the ground providing assistance to migrants and refugees seeking safety and protection on European territory. Thanks to their expertise and involvement in migration and human rights issues, their collaboration is paramount for a successful conclusion of the Portuguese and European strategy. 

This is actually one of  the priorities that the Portuguese Civil Society highlighted after the survey that the Portuguese NGDO Platform conducted of approximately 150 organisations in Portuguese civil society under the ongoing “Presidency Project – Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world”: to adopt human rights-centred migration policies. We must put an end to the logic of securitization that has dominated the European Union’s migration policy options. 

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