You wouldn’t know from reading or watching the British press but a major change to the way asylum seekers will be treated from 2026 has just been agreed by the European Union.

The European Union Migration Pact is the culmination of a process that began in 2020 when EU President Ursula von der Leyen, declared, “Migration is complex.” Not that complex really. Unless your main concern is keeping people out rather than social justice.

The new rules have been roundly condemned with Amnesty International’s Head of the European Institutions Office and Director of Advocacy, Eve Geddie, saying, 

“It is clearer than ever that this EU Pact on Migration and Asylum will set back European asylum law for decades to come, lead to greater suffering, and put more people at risk of human rights violations at every step of their journeys.”

Meanwhile the advocacy group Civil Rights Defenders has characterised the new arrangements as: “More people detained at border camps. Substandard, accelerated asylum procedures without the opportunity for legal aid. Crisis regulation that could allow for the complete denial of the right to asylum. The new European Union Migration Pact undermines the fundamental right to seek asylum and will lead to greatly increased suffering of asylum-seekers and migrants.”

So what are the new rules and, more importantly, what is driving the EU to make it even more difficult for people to claim asylum?

The pact began as a response to the widespread disillusion with the current system and was meant to allow for all member states to share the ‘burden’ of asylum equitably. What it has turned into is a way in which richer nations can pay poorer ones to stop the ‘problem’ at source. The so-called ‘solidarity mechanism’ allows countries to forgo taking in asylum seekers and instead pay into a fund to strengthen borders and to pay countries outside the EU to actively prevent migrants from making their way into the EU.

The key here is that for EU states, supporters of the very regimes doing most to increase the number of asylum seekers, it is the asylum seekers who are the problem not the circumstances that lead to frightened and displaced people making perilous journeys in the first place. Rather than seeing desperate people as requiring empathy we treat them as interlopers out to destroy our own communities. 

The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report in October 2023 that estimated that, last year alone, some 114 million refugees were created. That is an awful lot of displaced persons. But the UNHCR pointed out over half of them never cross an international border, preferring to stay close to home. The idea that millions of people are moving for a ‘better life’ in Europe or the UK is a total myth created by a virulent right who are driving a hate-filled agenda into the mainstream. The report shows that 76% of the world’s refugees are hosted by low or middle-income countries, many of which are unable to adequately support their needs. Just a small fraction seek to reach protection in Europe.

The EU is not actually seeking to resolve the issues that cause such huge displacement but to nullify the issue as an electoral item for the far right ahead of June elections. But pandering to these people does not nullify the issue, it simply fuels the hatred and institutionalises it within countries which, much like the UK, which of course is no longer a member of the EU, do not want to face up to their moral responsibilities, if so doing is likely to hamper their chances of electoral success.

The UK media tend to have even less enthusiasm for the EU now than when the UK was a member. But refugees moving through Europe do sometimes end up here so their attitude to asylum matters to us. The pact will let nations detain migrants at borders and fingerprint children as part of a revised application process that has at its heart turning people away.

The International Rescue Committee says: “..the pact will let nations detain migrants at borders and fingerprint children.” They argue: “Europe is now at a crossroads; it can either move ahead with the policies of deterrence and exclusion which will simply drive more people onto dangerous journeys, or choose to lead by example, advancing safe pathways and safeguarding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in a spirit of global humanitarian leadership.”

The IRC is right. The entire focus of the EU is to keep asylum seekers at bay. To make them somebody else’s problem. The UK has much the same attitude. But both the EU and the UK have contributed to a global environment which is increasingly unsafe and dominated by militarism. The only way to reduce the number of asylum seekers is to reduce the factors that create them in the first place. That means backing peace and diplomacy and shifting away from this obsession with imperialist conquest that continues to blight our globe and is, as a by-product, hastening the climate emergency.

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