Brussels chief urges EU to step up for migrants

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday urged member state governments to work together to handle refugees and promised to write a new migration rule book.

The president of the European Commission said she proposes to replace the so-called Dublin Regulation under which asylum claims are handled in the country they are first made.

Member states are bitterly divided over how to handle refugees, with Italy and Greece seeking more help to house the thousands who have arrived on their shores.

Previous attempts to reform the process have been refused by EU member states but, in the aftermath of a major fire in an overcrowded Greek camp, von der Leyen called for action.  

“I expect all member states to step up too. Migration is a European challenge and all of Europe must do its part,” she said in her annual State of the European Union speech.

“We will take a human and humane approach. Saving lives at sea is not optional,” she said, amid controversy over reports of Greek vessels turning back vulnerable migrants. 

“And those countries who fulfil their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others, must be able to rely on the solidarity of our whole European Union,” she said. 

“We will ensure a closer link between asylum and return. We have to make a clear distinction between those who have the right to stay and those who do not.”

The speech was well received in the European Parliament, but sceptical member states are waiting for von der Leyen to present a long-awaited reform plan on September 23.  

“I can announce that we will abolish the Dublin Regulation and we will replace it with a new European migration governance system,” she told MEPs.

“It will have common structures on asylum and return and it will have a new strong solidarity mechanism,” she said. 

The Dublin Regulation was established in 1990 and has been reformed twice, most recently in 2013. 

– ‘Painful reminder’ –

Under the rules, intended to prevent migrants from lodging multiple asylum requests in Europe, all demands are processed in the migrants’ first confirmed country of entry.

Von der Leyen said the European Commission was working with Greece on plans to jointly build a new migrant camp to replace the one that burned down last week on Lesbos.

“The images of the Moria camp are a painful reminder of the need for Europe to come together. Everybody has to step up here and take responsibility,” she said.

“We can assist with asylum and return processes and significantly improve the conditions for the refugees.”

In recent years, attempts to relocate asylum seekers in the EU have been rejected by the so-called Visegrad group — Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

In the immediate aftermath of the Moria fire, 10 European countries have agreed to receive some 400 unaccompanied children and adolescents. 

But Human Rights Watch called on the EU to completely rethink its policy on using the Greek island camps as “hotspot” detention centres for thousands of asylum seekers in unsuitable accommodation.

Germany, which holds the EU’s six-month presidency, has been the most open and, in addition to some 150 unaccompanied minors, it will take in more than 1,500 people, mainly families, as it did in 2015. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel has complained about the lack of a concerted European solution to take in more refugees. 

by Anne-Laure MONDESERT