EU countries have agreed reforms to the bloc’s asylum and migration system that, after seven years of deadlocked talks, will allow certain applications to be processed more quickly at border facilities.
At a meeting in Luxembourg on Thursday, interior ministers worked out technical details that could potentially affect asylum seekers’ rights. Italy and Germany played a leading role in the closing hours.
The ministers finally agreed to make it possible to send people whose asylum applications have been rejected to third countries that are considered safe. Germany had pushed for safeguards to prevent them from being sent to places they had no connection with, while Rome advocated looser criteria to make deportations easier.
The final compromise mentions human rights safeguards, but gives individual member states more leeway to decide whether a third country is considered safe.
Negotiations to reform the EU’s asylum and migration rules had stalled since the European Commission first proposed a review in 2016, with rising migration figures adding to the pressure.
The main fault lines ran between southern countries such as Italy and Greece, which under current rules are responsible for registering many arriving asylum seekers, and northern countries such as Germany or the Netherlands, to which many of them travel on.
“Today, many migrants enter European territory without any controls and travel from one state to another,” Nicole De Moor, Belgium’s secretary of state for migration, told the Financial Times. “And this makes our system very difficult to handle. We need more solidarity between European member states and we need a system that is better monitored.”
The compromise now provides for procedures that could take up to six months at border facilities for people whose asylum applications are believed to be less likely to be approved.
Unaccompanied minors would be exempt from this process, but families with children could be accommodated at the outer border of the bloc and detained in facilities there.
About 30,000 mandatory places across the EU have been earmarked for this on a rolling basis. Southern states, including Italy, have imposed an annual limit on the number of “border procedures” they would have to carry out.
Ministers also supported a solidarity mechanism to share the burden between countries. Nations can choose to take in people in need of protection and be relocated, or deposit money into a common fund. At least 30,000 people, or 600 million euros, should be distributed per year.
The relationship with Tunisia, from which departures to Europe have increased in recent months, was also discussed. A financial aid package for that country is being discussed, as is a possible agreement with Tunis to limit numbers, people familiar with the talks said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Mark Rutte, the leader of the Netherlands, will travel to Tunisia on Sunday.
Human rights groups say the reforms could lead to more detentions at the borders and limit access to rights.
Imogen Sudbery of the International Rescue Committee told the Financial Times: “No one should be returned to a potentially unsafe country until they have very fully and thoroughly investigated their claim and received full rights of appeal, which is (an) area that could potentially become eroded by border procedures.”
The EU is financing reception centers on the Greek islands, where the border procedure is already underway. Last year, the European Ombudsman launched an investigation into the centers for alleged violations of fundamental rights.
Sudbery said a general application of the accelerated procedure, especially in the case of children, “could reduce and more or less erode the rights to which they are entitled”.
The deal struck by member states is still to be negotiated with the European Parliament in the coming months, meaning many of the provisions elaborated by ministers may be reopened.