Blog post by Jeff Crisp, Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.


Overcrowded camps in Greece where asylum seekers are deprived of their liberty for many months on end and are obliged to live in dangerous and insanitary conditions while they wait for a solution to their plight. The interception of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea and their forced return to detention centres in Libya, where they are routinely abused and exploited. New fences erected on Hungary’s border and the brutalization of refugees and other migrants by the country’s military, police and vigilante groups. Periodic evictions and round-ups of foreign nationals who have made their way to northern France, and the UK’s refusal to admit those who have close relatives already living on the other side of the English Channel.  

As these examples suggest, the European Union’s refugee and asylum policies have become grotesquely dysfunctional over the past five years, despite (or perhaps, more accurately, because of) an incessant round of summit meetings, declarations, initiatives, agreements and deals, all of them ostensibly designed to attain the holy grail of ‘effective migration management’. 

A week ago, Brussels made its latest attempt to resolve this contradiction, introducing a ‘Pact on Migration and Asylum’ whose publication was brought forward as a result of the fire that had just destroyed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Describing the Pact as a “fresh start” to the issue, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that “it is now time to rise to the challenge to manage migration jointly, with the right balance between solidarity and responsibility.”  

Weaknesses and limitations

Such inscrutable comments cannot conceal the fact that this latest EU initiative has some fundamental weaknesses and limitations. While described as a ‘Pact’, it is by no means a done deal. Hungary and other members of the hardcore nationalist Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia) immediately expressed their opposition to it, fearing that it will oblige them to admit specific quotas of refugees, an arrangement that they have consistently and vehemently rejected over the past five years.    

The title of the new Pact is also misleading. What the document does not do is to set out a comprehensive vision of the role that migration, especially the mobility of employees, entrepreneurs and students, might play in the bloc’s future development strategy, both at home and abroad. Indeed, the initiative would more accurately be described as a ‘Pact on Irregular Migration from non-EU countries’, such is its fixation with this phenomenon. 

But as the text of the Pact reveals, this dimension of the migration issue is a relatively minor one.  Only 0.6 per cent of the EU’s population are refugees, while “20.9 million non-EU nationals were legally resident in EU Member States in 2019, some 4.7 per cent of the EU total population.” In other words, the scale of irregular migration to the EU is very small when compared with the scale of authorized migration. And the number of asylum seekers entering the region has diminished significantly in recent years.   

Misleading statements

The Pact is disingenuous and dishonest in several other respects. To give one particularly egregious example, it states that “since 2014, attempts to reach Europe on unseaworthy vessels have increased, with many lives lost at sea. This has prompted the EU, Member States, and private actors to significantly step up maritime search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean.” In fact, the EU has systematically withdrawn its own search and rescue assets, while making it increasingly difficult for NGOs to save lives at sea and to disembark passengers in a timely manner. 

Similarly, the EU argues that the response of member states to the destruction of Moria “has shown responsibility-sharing and solidarity in action.” But it fails to acknowledge that the very establishment of Moria and the terrible conditions that were allowed to persist there derived in large part from a lack of responsibility-sharing and solidarity within the EU.    

Curiously, given the enormous amount of time, effort and resources that EU and other UN member states have devoted to the establishment of the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration since 2016, there is not a single reference to these initiatives in the text of the new Pact. Are we therefore to assume that the priorities, principles and objectives so carefully articulated in those documents have no relevance to Europe? 

At the same time, while Brussels has consistently referred to IOM and UNHCR as being the EU’s “closest partners” in the refugee and migration context since the large-scale influx of Syrians and other foreign nationals in 2015-16, these organizations are mentioned only once in the text of the Pact. This seems to suggest that the EU and its member states are now ready to ‘go it alone’, rather than being dependent on partnerships with multilateral organizations.

Given the restrictive and exclusionary nature of the asylum proposals set out in the Pact, the EU’s apparent unwillingness to coopt these agencies in the implementation process may actually prove to be a positive development. If the EU is to be engaged in activities that run counter to the basic principles of refugee protection, then it is arguably better for the UN not to be in a position where it is providing Brussels with a humanitarian fig leaf. 

Undermining asylum

Finally, and as several other commentators have suggested since the Pact was published (see references at the end of this article), there is little doubt that the EU’s not-so-fresh-start will make it even more difficult for refugees to “seek and enjoy asylum” in Europe, as they are entitled to do in the language of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Under the terms of the Pact, for example, the EU “will strengthen cooperation with countries of origin and transit to prevent irregular crossings.” In other words, it will continue to be directly implicated in the process of interception, forced return and abusive detention in Libya. An asylum seeker who arrives at the borders of Europe will be refused admission if “the overall condition of the person appears to be very good.” Similarly, “asylum applicants with low chances of being accepted” will be denied legal entry, a principle that gives EU member states every incentive to drive down refugee recognition rates.

In addition, the Pact places enormous emphasis on the return of asylum seekers and other migrants to their country of origin if they are deemed to have no entitlement to remain in the EU. While there is nothing new about this issue, which has now been under discussion for more than 20 years, the Pact proposes a much more aggressive (and consequently more risky) approach to this objective, involving a “leading role” for Frontex, and the appointment of a Return Coordinator, supported by a new High Level Network for Return.

At the same time, and in a very poorly articulated part of the document, the Pact suggests that EU countries such as Hungary, that refuse to accept the relocation of refugees to their territory, would instead be able to assume responsibility for organizing and funding the return (i.e. deportation) of asylum seekers without a right to stay in other member states. In other words, a dangerous new twist on the notion of ‘solidarity’.


The EU Pact on Migration and Asylum can be accessed here:

For a collection of other commentaries on the Pact, go here:

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.