Solidarity should be the keyword for tackling migration in the aftermath of the pandemic

The EESC webinar explored if COVID-19 could be a game-changer for migration

The president of the European Economic and Social Committee, Luca Jahier, hosted on 20 May a webinar Migration in times of COVID-19, the unforgotten tragedy, waiting for the new EU Pact. The webinar gave the floor to distinguished speakers such as the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi, MEP and Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affair Juan Fernando López Aguilar and Secretary-General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Catherine Woollard.

The panellists discussed the COVID-19 outbreak's impact on migration and asylum-seeking process in the EU and debated whether the pandemic could be a game-changer for migration. Can the EU, at last, find an efficient way to manage migration and forge a new sense of solidarity in this area too, after the fight against the virus once again highlighted the importance of being united?

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, 22,000 migrants and refugees have so far arrived in Europe in 2020, of whom some 18,000 in the countries on the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of migrants have been stuck in transit because of the pandemic, and European countries will undoubtedly face a new wave of immigration once they lift border and travel restrictions. The Member States therefore risk seeing revived tensions at European borders, whereas the most contentious aspect of migration – the issue of solidarity between the countries receiving migrants and the distribution of asylum seekers arriving on the European soil – has been unresolved since long before the pandemic.  

Mr Jahier said that migration topped the European strategy agenda in the last five years, but with Member States failing to agree on a common approach. Now the pandemic is causing a significant delay to the new European pact on migration and asylum, which was scheduled to see the light of day in March 2020. Although the European Commission of Ursula von der Leyen included the migration pact in its five main priorities, now it is not among legislative pacts that will be adopted before summer,  Mr Jahier noted.

The Greek minister Notis Mitarachi said the COVID-19 outbreak has made Europe view migration in a different way. COVID-19 has introduced a security aspect to migration – people look at migration from a public health point of view, which has not been the case before. He said Greece had been the primary route for migrants entering the EU, with its islands getting overcrowded and with their reception facilities unable to respect mandatory safety measures for tackling the COVID-19 crisis.

Mr Mitarachi highlighted the difficulties caused by the pandemic-related closure of borders, such as in reunification of families, voluntary return of immigrants to their countries of origin or relocation of unaccompanied minors. He thanked the Member States that honoured their pledge to receive unaccompanied children. He also extended his thanks to the EU for standing with Greece during the geopolitical crisis at the Greek-Turkish border in February.

It is critical for Europe to have legal migration and not the random one we are currently seeingMr Mitarachi said. We should be able to give quick answers, have a tougher stance on return policy for those who don't qualify for refugee status, and this should be a key point in the new pact of migration. Frontline states don’t have the capacity to cope with migration flows.

For Ms Woollard, the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be a game-changer for migration in Europe as there are no magical solutions for such complex political and social issues. Ms Woollard, however, recognised some positive aspects that needed to be consolidated, saying that some political leaders have been more courageous during the pandemic with their decisions. She mentioned improvements in the reception of immigrants and refugees, such as recognising qualifications gained elsewhere to allow people to get jobs. However, she warned against the flexible solidarity model that sees solidarity as a toolbox allowing Member States to choose how and when to show it.  Solidarity is an obligation within the European treaties that all Member States signed, it is not something optional, she concluded.

Mr López Aguilar said that the COVID-19 crisis could change the situation in either direction, depending on how we act. We have many reasons to be concerned about the situation. And we have every reason to be demanding of the Commission, he stated.

Mr López Aguilar said emphasis should be put on enhancing legal pathways of migration and insisting that the EU law should be effective, especially during the crisis. Migration can contribute to Europe's diversity and if managed properly, it should not be depicted as a security threat. The asylum package is still effective for Member States and the Schengen border contract should be respected.

Solidarity is not wishful thinking, it is a mandate enshrined in the Treaties. There should be some EU authority to enforce solidarity and to make sure not to leave some countries alone, said Mr López Aguilar.   

All panellists agreed on the necessity to create a common and coordinated legal migration policy and adopt a common approach to tackling the migration issues. This is an absolute need and should be a priority especially under the threat of the corona pandemic in Africa where the situation, if it goes out of hand, could quickly assume disastrous proportions. Mr Jahier called upon leaders and all stakeholders not to ignore the warnings as we risk facing an even higher emergency than now.

The word solidarity has found a new meaning in the unprecedented decisions taken by the European Commission and the Member States to respond to COVID -19 crisis. The new pact on migration and asylum must put forward the same solidarity between the member states and with third countries, for the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees, concluded the EESC President.