The devastating fire in the Moria refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, has prompted the European Commission to bring forward the long-awaited reform of asylum and immigration policy by one week. A plan that they will finally adopt next Wednesday and with which they want to end the confrontations around the quota system and the relocation of refugees. “It will not be the ideal solution for anyone but it will be a way to go,” says the interior commissioner, the Swedish Social Democrat Ylva Johansson, during an interview with a group of journalists about plans that will focus on accelerating the rate of expulsion of immigrants and repatriation policy.
Has Moria changed the immigration debate?
I hope the immigration debate changes because we shouldn’t have more Morias. We must ensure that it does not exist again.
But Greece is rebuilding the center with help from the EU. Do you have red lines to prevent inhuman conditions from recurring?
We need reception centers and manage them properly, clear limits on the time that people can be in a reception center and it is necessary to have a mandatory solidarity mechanism so that if a country is under pressure, like Greece now and for many years years, other member states step in to help. It is also important to have faster asylum procedures than we have now in Greece.
Ursula Von der Leyen announced on Wednesday the abolition of the Dublin regulation, which gives responsibility for handling asylum applications to the country of arrival and puts pressure on Mediterranean countries.
We are going to withdraw the Dublin proposal that has been on the table since 2016 because it has caused most of the lockdown and instead we will make a new proposal that will amend the Dublin regulation. It will not be totally abolished but there will be modifications in it and in the responsibility of the country of entry. But it will not be deleted.
How do you approach a task in which you have failed in the last 5 years?
It is a difficult exercise (but) there are two important issues to be successful. I have been traveling a lot and I have had a lot of dialogue with the member states, with political groups in Parliament, to look for the possible compromise and a suitable balance. I think I found it. No one will be satisfied but everyone will understand that it is a balanced compromise that can be acceptable to everyone.
How will the plan differ from the response to the 2015 crisis?
Then there were 2.4 million irregular arrivals in Europe, 90% refugees. The focus was on relocation. Now we are in a totally different situation. Last year 2.4 million work permits were approved in the EU, most for family reasons, work, studies and a few for asylum. But at the same time we only had 140,000 irregular arrivals. Only one third of them were refugees and two thirds had a negative decision and would have to be returned. So there will be a strong focus on return.
The objective of increasing expulsions is not new but the rate does not reach 40%.
One extremely important element is having faster procedures. If a person has been living in a country for years before the decision is made, it is very difficult to return that person, especially in voluntary returns. My goal is that negative asylum decisions come together with return (expulsion) decisions. That could speed up the process and help with returns.
But how to make the system effective?
We must work closely with third countries of origin and transit. We can take action helping them with immigration and asylum. We have to reach agreements and find a win-win situation when it comes to fighting trafficking, accepting their citizens back, helping them in their development and also finding legal avenues of entry into the EU. And of course we need a solidarity mechanism. It is obvious that voluntary solidarity is not enough. There has to be a mandatory solidarity mechanism.
Seven member states, including those of Visegrad, have made it clear that they do not accept mandatory refugee quotas. Will it be part of the mandatory solidarity system?
The mandatory quotas have created much division among member states. We have a ruling from the EU Court of Justice that says it is possible to have mandatory quotas. If we analyze the situation we see that there are many people who arrive who do not have the right to international protection and must be returned. I wonder if it is a good idea to relocate those who need to be returned. We are looking for the way to provide the necessary help to the countries under pressure and relocation is an important part but also to do it in a way that is possible for all member states to accept. All member states must respond to the mandatory solidarity mechanism according to their size and capacity. There can be no easy escape route, for example by sending a few blankets. It must be commensurate with the capacity and size of the country’s economy.
What conditions will be required to activate mandatory relocations?
They should be neither too rigid nor too regulated. It is quite difficult to foresee different types of difficult situations that a member state may be in. That is why it is important that this can cover very different situations.
Will there be sanctions if a country does not comply with the mandatory solidarity mechanism?
These details have to wait until Wednesday.
How do you intend to break the Hungarian blockade?
My impression is that there are 27 member states that are ready and willing to commit to reaching an agreement. I think it is important to be able to reach a compromise and de-dramatize the immigration policy. I am not under any illusions that all member states should have the same opinion on immigration, but I believe that it is possible to reach an agreement on these proposals and on a common policy, even if they still have different opinions.
Denmark insists on establishing reception centers in countries outside the EU. Is it a way forward?
No. We are not going in that direction. It is important to work with third countries and find legal avenues for refugees and the main way to do this is through resettlement. It is a safe way for refugees to reach the EU. We are already working and evaluating people with UNHCR in third countries. But this does not happen by exporting the right to asylum. Being able to request asylum when one is in the territory of a member state is a fundamental right that must be defended.
What do you think of hot ejections?
I am very concerned about the reports of these expulsions. If they are carried out, they violate the fundamental right to request asylum that has to be defended. I have said in the European Parliament that we should consider in the pact a mechanism to monitor this.