EU nations reach long-stalled agreement on refugee hosting

Poland and Hungary voted against the proposals, and Bulgaria, Malta, Lithuania, and Slovakia abstained

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EU nations reach long-stalled agreement on refugee hosting.—AFP
EU nations reach long-stalled agreement on refugee hosting.—AFP 

The European Union announced on Thursday that they have reached an agreement on a long-stalled revision of the bloc's rules to ensure a fairer distribution of hosting responsibilities for asylum seekers and migrants.

The breakthrough was declared by Sweden, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, following a challenging day of negotiations among EU interior ministers in Luxembourg.

Years of contentious debates and disputes over asylum policy have finally led to this deal, which required the approval of a majority of countries representing at least 65% of the bloc's population. European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, praised the agreement as a "hugely significant step" for the EU in addressing migration challenges.

The proposal put forward during the meeting called for mandatory assistance between EU countries, presenting two options for implementation. The priority is for EU member states to share the hosting of asylum-seekers, particularly those arriving in nations located on the outer rim of the bloc, such as Greece and Italy. However, countries that refuse to participate would instead be required to contribute €20,000 ($21,000) per person to a fund managed by Brussels.

While Poland and Hungary voted against the proposals, and Bulgaria, Malta, Lithuania, and Slovakia abstained the preliminary agreement paves the way for negotiations with the European Parliament to establish legislation that could be adopted before the upcoming European elections in June next year.

The reform of the EU asylum system has gained significant importance as the number of asylum seekers has risen after a temporary decline due to travel restrictions during the Covid pandemic. In 2020, the European Commission proposed a new migration and asylum pact based on a quota system, but it faced immediate opposition from Hungary, Poland, and other countries unwilling to accept mandatory quotas.

To find a compromise, Sweden, currently holding the rotating EU presidency, presented two alternative texts: one advocating for the hosting-or-cash approach to be embraced by all member states, and the other focusing on asylum procedures at the EU's external borders. The second text requires member states to establish expedited procedures at the borders for individuals arriving from countries deemed safe, aiming to facilitate their prompt return.

While some stakeholders, like Belgian Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Nicole de Moor, highlighted the need to prioritise refugees from countries with statistically lower chances of receiving refugee status, organisations such as Oxfam have criticised the direction of the negotiations. Oxfam argued that the proposed revisions would not adequately address the chronic deficiencies in the EU asylum system and instead indicated the EU's intent to erect barriers against asylum seekers.