Today is a crucial day for the European Union and the right to asylum. The Pact on Migration and Asylum presented by the European Commission could be an important step towards rebuilding an effective common policy in these two important spheres, one that respects the rights of all: the host communities, the people who are fleeing persecution and war and those seeking a more dignified life.

A change of direction is needed in order to break free from the instrumentalization of migration issues and inaugurate a new season – one of concrete action, cooperation and long-term decisions.

The events of recent weeks, the latest tragedies in the Mediterranean, the delays in the disembarkation of people rescued at sea, the ashes of Moria camp in Greece, all confirm the urgency of the need for a joint European policy on migration and asylum as quickly as possible.

The time has come for these issues to be managed in a logic of cooperation between States and to be considered opportunities rather than emergencies. For several years now irregular arrivals, especially by sea, have been relatively modest. This makes it the right moment to shape a new common policy.   

It seems that the European Union has at last decided to look forward and to replace obsolete and dysfunctional instruments, such as the Dublin Regulation, that had become sources of ongoing tension. 

Will the new pact work? Yes, to the extent that it is able to establish new shared rules and make new investments allowing all States to act responsibly, collectively overcoming the period of bilateral agreements, rigidity and exclusion that have done great damage to refugees and migrants as well as to all EU countries and their citizens in terms of social cohesion.

In concrete terms, the new pact will be a success if it enacts a coordinated system for search and rescue in the Mediterranean, quick and appropriate border procedures able to immediately identify vulnerable people and an automatic system of redistributing arrivals. It will need to strengthen the coordination and cooperation between Member States on the repatriation of persons who do not have the right to remain in Europe through joint procedures that respect the dignity and rights of those involved. At the same time, it must broaden opportunities for safe and legal immigration and asylum in order to allow the most vulnerable refugees to arrive in Europe in an orderly and safe manner, without risking their lives at sea. (Italy, in this respect, is exemplary in the way it has leveraged strong alliances between institutions and civil society to promote safe and legal forms of admission, such as humanitarian and university corridors, and in the way it has implemented with determination several emergency humanitarian evacuations from Libya and Niger.) 

Further, a new Pact must affirm with conviction that the arrival of refugees can be positive in terms of social and economic change. Refugees have suffered the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing their already fragile condition worsen further. Despite this, all over Europe we have seen refugees mobilizing in support of other, more vulnerable people in their host communities. Refugee integration policies need to be further strengthened, in the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees, through the greater involvement of local authorities, civil society, business, universities and the media.

In addition, much more strategic and targeted investment is urgently needed in the developing countries hosting the great majority of refugees, often without opportunities for social inclusion. Were refugees to be offered the possibility of a dignified future in the countries hosting them, they would not risk their lives trying to reach Europe, putting themselves in the hands of unscrupulous traffickers. In this respect, the upcoming EU Multiannual Financial Framework for the period following 2020 represents an opportunity to support these countries through measures supporting refugees and their host communities.

Lastly, new rules governing immigration are needed to allow people to apply for work and residence permits from their countries of origin. This would reduce pressure on the European asylum system and help to ensure that it functions properly.

These are uncertain times, but Europe can rise to the challenge by renewing its commitment to the fundamental principles underpinning the right to asylum and updating the practices that allow it to be implemented in a difficult and complex reality. In order for this to happen, for Europe to continue to be a role model and guide at global level, it must give due weight to its original founding values. Only then will it be able to achieve a common policy that is not merely just but effective.

Filippo Grandi is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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