EU policy to manage the flows

As crossings increased in 2015 and despite the initial warm welcome from EU citizens in frontline and destination countries, it became apparent in the eyes of the European Union that there was a need for increased cooperation with origin and transit countries in order to reduce the number of arrivals. Such a foreign policy at the EU level had already been inaugurated by Federica Mogherini at the Barcelona Mediterranean Summit in November 2014. A year later, the Valetta Summit (11–12 November 2015) brought together European and African heads of state and government to approve an action plan to ‘improve cooperation on return, readmission and reintegration.’ The Valetta Summit was only the first of several steps involving origin and transit countries.

The key element in dramatically reducing asylum seeking and irregular migration flows on the Eastern Mediterranean route has been the EU-Turkey Statement, which was signed by the European Union and Turkey on 18 March 2016. According to this agreement, all migrants arriving on Greek islands or intercepted in the Aegean Sea would be returned to Turkey, while a selected group of Syrian refugees in Turkey – equal in number to those being returned from Greece – would be resettled in Europe.

Although readmission agreements had been previously signed between the EU and Turkey and between Greece and Turkey, the EU-Turkey Statement signalled a new level of EU engagement with transit and origin countries. At the same time, legal experts and civil society organisations have questioned whether its adheres to the EU legal order and its respect for fundamental rights and the principle of non-refoulement (i.e. the principle of not returning an asylum seeker to a country where they would likely be in danger of persecution).

The EU-Turkey statement has been accompanied by three billion euros of funds from the EU to support Turkey’s delivery of services for the integration of Syrian refugees in the country. The principal beneficiaries have been civil society organisations operating in Turkey.

The implementation of the EU-Turkey statement required a reform of the Greek asylum law. The resulting law (no.4375/2016) introduced an exceptional regime for Greece when faced with particularly large numbers of arrivals lodging asylum applications at its border. The new law provides for police authorities and unarmed soldiers to conduct the registration of asylum applications. Under this special border regime asylum applications have to be examined at both first and, if necessary, second instance within 14 days.

A further development in the logic of establishing closer and more effective cooperation with transit and origin countries was the recent EU-Afghanistan conference held in September 2016 and the related agreement that facilitates the return of irregular Afghan migrants to this country.

A new, fully-fledged European Border and Coast Guard Agency became operational in October 2016. This new agency reinforces and enlarges the role of Frontex (the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at External Borders) in the Aegean Sea by extending its monitoring responsibilities to include intervention in emergency situations.

Finally, the combined impact of the hotspot approach (a system for identifying individuals in ‘clear need of protection’ on arrival in Greece and Italy, the EUNAVFOR MED military patrol operation in the Mediterranean Sea, and the new European border and coastguard forces signal a strong shift towards the Europeanisation of border management and the enlargement of EU jurisdiction in this domain alongside a close and somewhat forced cooperation with transit and origin countries.

See also:

Further information on the principle of non-refoulement; the hotspot approach; and the EUNAVFOR MED operation.

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Why Do People Migrate? Facts

European University Institute (EUI)