The interview was conducted by Franck Düvell (FD).
FD: Last year, we saw the numbers of asylum seekers in the EU diminishing even though globally, numbers of forced migrants still remain on a record high. Where do you see the reason for this mismatch?
TS: It can have to do with the COVID-19 measures because a lot more attention is on the external borders. This fuels increasing support for harsh border policies. COVID-19 has more or less legitimised firm pushback practices and policies. Also, irregular migration is perceived more as a health risk than a security risk. And therefore, more measures, more instruments are seen as legitimised, because of the need to protect the citizens. Because, if you look at Greece since March last year, the pushbacks have become a structural part of their border policies, at its sea and land borders. But you also see this in other external border areas. So, I really think it has become much more difficult to enter the EU territory because of this.
FD: Recently, the Commission proposed its new Pact on Migration and Asylum. What are, in your view, the main reasons for the current deadlock? Are there any ideas by the Portuguese and Slovenian Presidencies on how to move forward the proposal or at least parts of it?
TS: It was predictable that the negotiations would be difficult again, like in the previous term with the other package proposal. Due to the lack of solidarity,there is no solution found that is satisfactory. The Commission introduces what it calls mandatory solidarity, but the member states still have a lot of choices, and one of them is to relocate people. Therefore, the border countries do not have any safeguard that there will be sufficient relocations to other member states. At the same time, they have the obligation to implement a border procedure and a screening procedure. Relocation, as far as it will happen, will only be done for those who have the best chances to get asylum. So I think, the border countries are not satisfied at all with the obligation to have these border procedures, especially without any guarantee of solidarity. Meanwhile, the other member states are very much in favour of the border procedures but even resist the Commission’s proposal of a solidarity system. Notably, the ‘first-entry criterion’ is dividing the countries very much, because the system as such does not foresee an equal sharing of responsibility. The Commission says, “yes, but in the new regulations we have added other criteria like diplomas and an extended definition of family”, but everyone knows that most asylum seekers will still be categorised under this first entry criterion. So in that sense, not much will change compared to the current system. So, no one is satisfied and so far, I think there is no preparedness to have any compromises from one side or the other. Finally, there is still this package approach, a lot of member states say, “we are not going to compromise on one of the parts”.
FD: And do you know whether the Portuguese or Slovenian Presidencies have any suggestions for overcoming this deadlock?
TS: Well, the German government was already immediately confronted with the resistance of the member states. The Portuguese Presidency is really making a lot of effort, but that all is still stalled. This is very worrying because if we depend on the Slovenian Presidency, it will be even more difficult. The Slovenians will not support the regulation at all. So that will already also create resistance of the border countries. However, the current rules are actually pretty good, for example, the asylum procedure regulations, the reception condition. If those had been implemented correctly everywhere, we would have already achieved some harmonisation to a large extent. I think the only thing that really needs a fundamental change is the Dublin criteria. But for all the other elements, I think we would get along quite well if we had proper implementation and enforcement of the rules. But this is lacking.
FD: Another important element in the Pact is the externalisation of migration governance. What does this mean for human rights and refugees and migration, in particular of those who remain outside of the EU? And what would be the cornerstones of a human rights sensitive approach?
TS: Of course the biggest risk is, that indeed, refugees, migrants, on the way to protection are stuck in a transit country without having proper access there to an asylum procedure, to basic rights, etc. For example, if you look at the conditionality requirement [FD, meaning that EU support to third countries is conditional on their compliance with EU expectations] this may fuel even more repressive policies in third countries than a more human rights sensitive approach, because they are awarded or they are sanctioned if they do not meet the agreements on border control, readmission or whatever. What you see in the current cooperation is that there are no particular safeguards regarding human rights and the protection of migrants and refugees. What we see now is that the main focus is on cooperation on border control and return and much less on the other issues that are at stake. It seems almost not to be a criterion at all for entering into cooperation, and there is also no monitoring mechanism on the human rights impact of the implementation of the cooperation. For a start, there should be human rights criteria that a third country should meet before entering into cooperation. We should do a human rights impact assessment before entering into cooperation, this would be the most concrete benchmark for the EU to assess this cooperation. And then, there should be independent, transparent monitoring of the impact. Also with regard to funding, we should make sure that there is a balance between investing in protection standards and the rights of migrants and investing in border control.
I also think that this externalisation is making us dependent. For example, if we have good cooperation with a country that violates the human rights of migrants and refugees, are we prepared, are we willing to criticise those practices and policies, if at the same time we may risk impeding this cooperation? I find that very tricky and therefore, I think, human rights should be much more the leading principle for this whole cooperation instead of the number of migrants that can be returned. To have better judicial control, more transparency and democratic control, we should do away with those informal arrangements [FD e.g. EU-Turkey statement] and go back to formal agreements, so that it is much clearer for everyone that there is also the possibility to have access to justice, if people feel affected by this cooperation. Also, funding should be controlled much better. Another issue is the shift from transit countries to countries of origin, for instance, in readmission agreements. If we make sure that people who are not in need of protection can be transferred to their own country, there it is much more guarantee for them to build a new future instead of being stuck in limbo in a transit country. And to achieve that, I have drafted a report for the DROI Committee [FD Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs in the European Parliament] to have certain principles and criteria that should be met.
FD: Another issue is the pushbacks which we see in Greece and Italy partly backed by Frontex. How would you evaluate these developments and what needs to be done to secure forced migrants’ access to protection and generally migrants’ access to human rights?
TS: This is the most frustrating part of EU migration policies at the moment, the complete lack of enforcement [FD: of EU legal standards] and therefore the climate of impunity that has developed at the external borders. You already mentioned some countries, you also see this in Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and so on. I think, there the Commission has a large responsibility to start pushing for enforcement. I mean there are a lot of consistent reports, the argument that there is no evidence has become invalid. So the Commission should at least make sure that national governments have an independent investigation procedure to treat those complaints much more seriously. But because we cannot be very confident with Greece and Croatia, these countries deny everything, the Commission needs to take a much firmer stance. What the Commission mainly does is referring to the new Pact, like the monitoring system, proposed now in the screening regulation. But the scope of this is much too small, the pushbacks take place somewhere else, in the woods, at sea, so there should be independent monitoring everywhere at the external borders. And we should make sure that border monitoring is really independent, has a sufficient mandate and has sufficient resources. The main problem for now is that there is no measure at all in pushing for compliance. And also the other member states, they keep silent, even Seehofer actually more or less applauded the Croatian government for its border policies. So they are more encouraged than discouraged to go on. For us in the European Parliament, it is very difficult to exercise sufficient influence becausewe can only push for enforcement.
But regarding Frontex, we have our own power, and this is why it is so important to have an inquiry to look at how Frontex performs regarding its obligations. For instance, Article 46 of the regulation clarifies that we need to withdraw from a country where human rights violations take place. How does the framework work? Are these mechanisms functioning effectively? We are not going to look at Greece only but also at Hungary, Croatia and the Mediterranean Sea to investigate how they see their role, how it works in practice, hopefully with a view to having recommendations forimprovingthe functioning of Frontex. Because especially if the member states themselves do not comply, we need to rely on Frontex, on an agency that is on the spot and that has an obligation to support and to make sure that human rights are complied with. What I hope is that we are really going to find solutions for the current problems. Member states should really take their responsibility even without new legislation.