The European Union’s attempt to relocate asylum-seekers among its member states continues to flounder, as only 435 migrants have been moved from Mediterranean front-line states to other destinations since the launch of a voluntary scheme in June last year.
All the relocations were carried out from Italy and Cyprus, a European Commission spokesperson confirmed to Euronews, with “more transfers in the pipeline.”
Promoted by France, the so-called Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism (VSM) is currently backed by 23 countries, including 19 member states, with a goal of 8,000 relocations per year.
“A significant number of pledges were made available, especially by Germany and France,” the spokesperson added.
However, the latest numbers clearly show that, seven months after its much-publicised creation, the VSM has been unable to gain enough traction to go anywhere near that annual ambition, despite a surge in asylum applications that has brought back migration to the very top of the EU’s political agenda.
The bloc and associated Schengen countries received nearly 924,000 asylum requests last year, according to an estimate by the European Commission, a 46% increase compared to 2021.
The submissions included nationals from countries traditionally considered “safe,” such as India, Bangladesh, Morocco, Georgia and Peru, and states that are official candidates to join the EU, like Turkey, Albania, North Macedonia and Moldova.
Syrians and Afghans, two countries where human rights violations and persecution are widespread, continue to represent the largest groups seeking international protection.
Meanwhile, the EU registered over 330,000 irregular border crossings in 2022 – a disparity that suggests most asylum-seekers arrived via legal and safe routes, and then overstayed their visas.
The European Commission is particularly worried about the situation in the Western Balkan route, which saw 145,600 border incidents last year – a 136% rise.
The executive blames this surge on the lack of visa alignment between the EU and the Western Balkans, all of whom are supposed to adjust their policies with the bloc as part of their accession bids.
“There is an increase in irregular arrivals from, and asylum applications to EU member states by nationals of India, Tunisia, Burundi, and Cuba. These are all nationalities that have visa-free access to at least one Western Balkan partner,” a Commission spokesperson told Euronews.
“Visa policy alignment is crucial for the good functioning of the visa-free regime of the Western Balkans with the EU. All Western Balkans partners should align their visa policy with the EU as a matter of priority.”
Even if the concept of “safe” countries is disputed by civil society organisations, governments have nevertheless sounded the alarm about the increase of asylum-seekers and the low return rate of those whose applications are rejected, estimated to be at 22% every year.
Member states are now threatening to use Article 25a of the EU’s Visa Code to slap restrictive measures on third countries that refuse to cooperate on returns, while the European Commission has recommended using policy areas such as visa, trade and investment as “leverages” to make progress.
The renewed focus on the external dimension of migration policy underlines how explosive and divisive the internal aspects remain, particularly the question of relocation.
The European Commission proposed in September 2020 a “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” that introduced a permanent mechanism to relocate asylum-seekers across the bloc.
The draft was immediately met with strong opposition from those who complained it went too far by making relocation pledges mandatory and those who argued it did too little to alleviate the disproportionate burden of Mediterranean countries.
The pact has been stuck in negotiations ever since.
Last year’s launch of the Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism, hailed as “historic,” was supposed to be a breakthrough and act as a stepping stone for a common and consistent relocation system.
But the VSM, which is essentially a non-binding agreement between countries that works outside the EU framework, has until now fallen drastically short of the 8,000 expected relocations.
The success rate stands today at 5.4% – up from 1.4% in November.
Out of the 23 countries that back the VSM, just 13 have committed relocation pledges, with the others providing financial and operational support.
The scheme only applies to people in need of international protection who arrive through the Mediterranean Sea and gives priority to those considered “most vulnerable”
Participating countries are allowed to select which profile of migrants they wish to welcome inside their borders and conduct interviews on the ground to screen applications.
Notably, Greece, a country that currently hosts almost 120,000 asylum-seekers, has so far not benefitted from the scheme as all relocations have been conducted from Italy and Cyprus towards Western Europe.
A spokesperson for the Greek Interior Minister said the 8,000 annual pledges represented a “very small” fraction of the asylum applications and insisted the EU needed to adopt a mandatory system, like the one proposed by the Commission’s “New Pact.”
“Of course, we are open to using the (VSM), but we would like it to move faster and in bigger numbers,” the spokesperson told Euronews.
Migration experts have criticised the VSM for its excessively selective nature, its lack of predictability and the exclusion of EU institutions from the enforcement of pledges.
Any sort of relocation scheme, be it compulsory or voluntary, requires governments to be “willing participants” or else it is bound to fall apart, said Andrew Geddes, the director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute (EUI).
“You can see a whole range of groups and organisations that would be willing participants in these processes and identify people that need protection, for example, but without the willing cooperation of governments and that kind of political commitment, it’s very difficult to see how these things can be achieved,” Geddes told Euronews in an interview.
“Then you end up with kind of voluntary arrangements where the initial commitment sounds quite promising and then the reality is disappointing.”