Not in my Backyard! European Solidarity as Framework for the Relocation of Asylum Seekers

Sticker op paal met het woord 'solidarity'
Photo: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Blog by student Nynke Ariesen, 22 May 2024

Overflowing refugee camps in Italy and Greece, coast guards pushing boats filled with asylum seekers back to sea, and big protests against migration: these are all common occurrences that characterize how migration is dealt with in the EU. This illustrates the growing conception of refugees as a ‘security problem’ and the dehumanizing way asylum seekers are treated under the current migration system. The real problem is, of course, the lack of safety in home countries that causes people to flee. However, it cannot be denied that the large number of asylum seekers puts a heavy burden on the Member States of the EU. Most asylum seekers enter the EU at the southern outer borders which means that the countries located there bear the brunt of the migration influx. This costs them a lot of money, resources, and space, which they do not always have. This, therefore, explains why migration is a big issue in both national and European elections.

So, it has never been clearer: the EU’s migration policy needs to change. Luckily, the EU and its Member States agree with that, and after years of negotiations the new ‘Migration and Asylum Pact’ is finally on its way. In this blogpost I will unpack one small element of the Pact, namely the ‘solidarity mechanism’, which is meant to fairly distribute asylum seekers across the EU. What is it? How does it work? And most importantly, will it be effective?

Revising EU migration policy

On 14 May 2024, the European Council officially adopted the new laws on the reform of the EU asylum and migration system which have been in the making since 2016. The new Asylum and Migration pact is a set of laws and policies aimed at streamlining the migration and asylum processes in the EU. One of the adopted laws is the so called ‘Asylum Migration Management Regulation’ which, amongst other things, aims to balance the distribution of asylum seekers between the EU Member States.

The new Regulation is set to replace the current ‘Dublin system’ for asylum applications. Under the Dublin system, the state where a migrant enters the EU is usually responsible for handling the asylum application. While this is logical in principle, the result is that Member States on the southern outer borders of the EU, such as Italy, Spain and Greece, have a much larger number of asylum applications to work through and migrants to house than Member States in the centre of the EU, like Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Anti frontex demonstration (migration)
Photo: Mortaza Shahed via Unsplash

The Solidarity Mechanism

Given the large increase in migration since 2015, border countries such as Italy and Greece can no longer keep up with the high number of asylum seekers that wish to enter the EU. The new Regulation, therefore, aims to distribute asylum seekers across the Member States more fairly. For Dutch readers, remember the controversial ‘Spreidingswet’ that brought the Dutch government to collapse last summer, and is now again a controversial point in the coalition agreement? Consider this its European cousin, which has, in a similar fashion, really tested the resolve of the European Council.

One of the new policies in this Regulation is the ‘solidarity mechanism’. This mechanism requires Member States to help overloaded states work through the large number of asylum applications. There are three ways to contribute. The first method is to relocate asylum seekers to the contributing country’s own territory in order to process the application for asylum there. Alternatively, a Member State can decide to make a financial contribution to the migration system of the country where the asylum seeker first entered, or to the EU’s external border protection in general. Alternative solidarity measures are also possible, such as providing personnel or technical assistance.

The solidarity mechanism is a so-called ‘mandatory but flexible’ method for relocating asylum seekers. This means that it is mandatory for all Member States to contribute based on a combination of the size of the country’s population and its gross national product. What makes it flexible is that a country is free to choose its preferred method of contribution, which can be relocation or financial assistance. However, this flexibility is limited, because, every year, the European Commission will set a minimum target of at least 30,000 migrants that need to be relocated. If less than 60% of this goal is reached, the Member States that have pledged a financial contribution will instead be required to either relocate migrants or sponsor their return to their home country if their asylum application has been denied.

Will this system of solidarity work?

So far so good. The new laws should lead to a better distribution of asylum seekers, while still leaving room for Member States to make their own choices. Time to sit back and let solidarity do its work, right? Unfortunately, no. While the solidarity mechanism is wonderful in theory, in practice it is very limited in what it can really achieve in terms of the redistribution of asylum seekers.

First of all, the solidarity mechanism is only used in case there is an overload on the migration system of one or more EU Member States. It is not specified in the Asylum and Migration Management Regulation when something is considered an overload, as it is up to the country concerned to make its case to activate the solidarity mechanism. However, what is clear is that the solidarity mechanism should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. If the Commission does not consider a country to be overloaded, the old Dublin system of ‘country of first entry’ as explained previously, continues to apply.

Second, while the minimum target for relocations is set for 30,000 migrants per year, in reality only 60% of this target needs to be met before the mandatory nature of the mechanism comes into play. Therefore, the real minimum target is only 18,000. For context, over a million asylum seekers entered the EU in 2023, so really, 18, 000 is barely a drop in the bucket.

Lastly, even in the event that the minimum target of relocations is not met and the mandatory element of the solidarity mechanism is activated, Member States can still evade their duty to relocate asylum seekers. Namely, instead of relocating a migrant to its own territory to process the asylum application there, a Member State can opt to sponsor the return to the country of origin of a migrant whose application has been denied. Essentially, if a country is rich (or desperate) enough, it can ‘buy off’ any responsibility by paying for what is lovingly called ‘relocation through the back door’. In reality this is nothing more than paying for the expulsion, rather than the relocation, of migrants.

EU solidarity, but only when it suits me?

In short, the EU solidarity mechanism is useful in theory but lacks in practical effectiveness. While claiming to promote the fair distribution of asylum seekers and migration costs amongst the EU Member States, it fails to achieve real distribution, and, thus, still leaves the countries at Europe’s southern borders to deal with the influx of migrants by themselves. No matter how much this is presented as a ‘solidarity’ mechanism, in reality, Member States are only willing to show solidarity if the problems are kept out of their own ‘backyard’.

More information

Did this blogpost peak your interest and do you want to learn more about the new Migration and Asylum Pact and the solidarity mechanism? Here are some recommended readings:

Flexible Solidarity in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum: A New Form of Differentiated Integration? – Juan Santos Vara, European Papers

Het Europese asielbeleid. Twee grote akkoorden om de impasse te doorbreken – Adviesraad Internationale Vraagstukken

Flexible Responsibility or the End of Asylum Law as We Know It? – Felix Peerboom, Verfassungsblog

The new design of the EU’s return system under the Pact on Asylum and Migration – Madalina Moraru, EU migration blog

The New Pact on Migration and Asylum: What it is Not and What it Could Have Been – Philippe de Bruycker, EU migration blog

Navigating the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in the Shadow of Non-Europe – Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, European Policy Centre