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President Volodymyr Zelensky with EU heads of states February 9, 2023. ABACA/PA Images
Asylum Seekers

EU agrees tougher rules for failed asylum-seekers as leaders call for border surveillance

The measures are a response to increasing European concern over rising irregular immigration.

LAST UPDATE | 10 Feb 2023

EU LEADERS HAVE agreed tougher rules aimed at making it easier to expel asylum-seekers whose refugee applications are denied, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said this morning. 

The measures are a response to increasing European concern over rising irregular immigration that has become a hot-button issue in several member countries.

That problem is “a European challenge that requires a European response,” EU leaders said in a final document at the end of a 16-hour summit looking at that and other topics.

The low numbers of failed asylum-seekers being returned to their home countries is a central preoccupation for the European Union.

The bloc is already hosting millions of refugees from conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan, while facing asylum claims from citizens of safer countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey and Tunisia, many of whom end up being deemed economic migrants ineligible for asylum.

Von der Leyen said “pilot projects” relying on the EU’s border patrol, asylum and police cooperation agencies would look to instil “fast and fair asylum procedures” at the bloc’s external borders.

The EU leaders called on the commission “to immediately mobilise substantial EU funds” to reinforce that external border with “protection capabilities and infrastructure, means of surveillance, including aerial surveillance, and equipment,” according to the summit document.

Border fences ruled out

Von der Leyen also ruled out funding for border fences in EU countries.

That decision came after some EU countries, notably Austria, had pushed the commission to pay for reinforced fences designed to keep irregular migrants crossing from neighbouring non-EU nations such as Turkey.

Von der Leyen has repeatedly said EU funds would not pay for fences.

But EU officials and diplomats pointed out that, if Brussels paid for cameras, watch towers and other infrastructure along the external border, that would free up countries to pour their national budgets into paying for fences.

The summit also reached agreement on a “principle” under which one EU country can use a court decision in another EU member state to return an irregular migrant to their home country.

That would try to prevent “asylum shopping” whereby migrants go to a different country to apply to stay after being turned down in an initial one.

The EU leaders also agreed “to increase the use of the safe-country concepts” that will open the way to the bloc formulating a common list, von der Leyen said.

‘Fair, firm and hard’

Speaking yesterday at ahead of the European Council meeting, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that Ireland also needs to have a “fair, firm and hard” approach to migration.

He told reporters that while refugees are welcome in Ireland, decisions need to be made faster on asylum applications to ensure people who are not entitled to protections are returned to their country of origin.

Varadkar said that while “people who need our protection should get it”, he also believes that Ireland needs to be “firm” with people who come to the country with “a false story or a false pretense”.

Varadkar was clear that his comments did not signal a change of policy for his party on migration. He also said that the State needs to crack down on human trafficking, and that communications with communities in areas where asylum seekers are being moved to need to be improved.

However, Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews said that he was “disappointed” with the far-right narratives on migration emerging from the European Council.

“What I’m hearing from the European Council is solely the narrative of the far-right. Strengthen the borders, no more search and rescue, nothing about pushbacks and that needs to be balanced with the humanitarian view,” Andrews told Newstalk.

“The idea that walls can stop migration is a total distraction, there is no example in history where walls have been successful in stopping migration.”

Andrews said that he wanted to see the Government articulate the “other side of the coin” and detail a more humanitarian approach.

Speeding up the process

When asked about Andrews’ comments this morning, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys told reporters that it is the Government’s plan to shorten the timeframe in which a person’s asylum application is processed.

“We’re going to try and turn that time around, much much quicker, because there are many that are entitled to be here under international protection, but there are some that are coming from safe countries, and they may be coming here for other reasons, such as economic migrants. So we do need to to turn that process around more quickly. And the Minister for Justice has committed to doing that,” said the minister. 

When asked about supports for refugees from Ukraine and comments from Varadkar in Brussels this week that there were no plans to put a time limit on supports, Humphreys said the full benefits of the social welfare system apply. 

She believes it is a fair system and is “working well”.

“There’s a lot of people that are actually moving off it, we want to help them try and find jobs. And the job activation measures that we have in place are available to Ukrainians who are coming here,” she said. 

The minister said it is difficult for some as many refugees from Ukraine are single mothers with children.

“We want to work with them as they get settled into this country to help them find work. Because as we know, we’re in a very tight labour market at the minute, many of them bring important skills,” said Humphreys.

English classes are being provided to help those who want to return to the workforce, she said. 

“I think what we’re doing at the minute is fair and it’s it’s the right thing to do. For international protection people, they get a very small weekly allowance. That remains as is and there are no plans to change that,” added Humphreys. 

– © AFP 2023 with additional reporting from Christina Finn and Tadgh McNally.

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