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Skepticism has greeted the European Commission's call for member states to streamline deportations of people whose asylum applications have been rejected. The move comes as centrist EU regimes face far-right challenges.
As part of its long-term vision for the bloc, on Thursday, the European Commission released its "new measures for an efficient and credible EU return policy." That's a roundabout way of saying the European Commission has put forth a proposal for EU member states to streamline the deportations of people whose asylum applications have been rejected. And the scheme was quickly and roundly criticized.
"The commission is trying to organize common standards on readmission, but what we are missing is the readiness and political will on the part of national governments to accept that there are people who flee war, who flee persecution," said Birgit Sippel, a German member of the European Parliament from the Social Democrats (SPD). "We all, together, need to make sure that we protect those people. We're doing the second step before the first, and this is something that really concerns me."
The "renewed EU Action Plan on Return" seeks to guide members in simultaneously denying asylum applications and issuing departure orders for displaced people, as well as shortening the appeals process. The plan would help member states set up "assisted voluntary return programs" and improve coordination among national and international bodies involved in removing people.
"We have to be very careful," Sippel said. "According to our rules - and we do have existing rules - even if the decision is 'sorry, you can't get protection according to our asylum system,' in individual cases there might be reasons why people can't be sent back to their home countries."
In addition to politicians across the spectrum, rights organizations were quick to react to the proposal that 200 million euros ($210 million) be dedicated to deportations blocwide. The policy also offered several suggestions that could be interpreted as violations of fundamental rights.
"Recommendations by the European Commission to detain almost all irregular migrants before returning them to their home countries, with no limitations on where they can be apprehended, have laid bare the cruelty and hypocrisy of the EU Commissioners' migrations policies," an Amnesty International press release read. "Detention of irregular migrants, some of the most vulnerable people in Europe, should be a last resort," added Iverna McGowan, the director of Amnesty International's EU Institutions Office.
'Creating more fear'
The plan comes as several nominally centrist EU governments face election-year challenges from far-right factions. This spring will see elections in the Netherlands, where the anti-immigrant candidate, Geert Wilders, is behind the current, center-right prime minister by a decimal's difference. And in France (pictured), where allegations of corruption have dogged the Republican candidate and the incumbent Socialists are in disarray, the perennial provoker of prejudice Marine Le Pen will likely meet the middle-of-the-road maverick Emmanuel Macron in a runoff battle for the presidency in May.
Germany's opposition has criticized the government's recent efforts to deport displaced people to countries such as Afghanistan, where many regions are active war zones. However, the government, facing a far-right challenge from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) - which will likely enter the Bundestag after elections in September - seems keen to ramp up its dismissals of people whose asylum applications are denied.
"We saw it Hungary, we saw it in Poland, we saw it in Slovakia; we may see it now in the Netherlands and France," MEP Sippel said. "What's worrying me now in general is that politics is moving to the right instead of sending a clear message that those people coming as refugees, the broad, broad, broad majority, they are fleeing war, they are fleeing poverty, they are fleeing persecution - and there is a need to protect them."
In Germany, her SPD recruited former European Parliament President Martin Schulz to challenge Angela Merkel for the Chancellery and suppress the AfD. So far, he seems to have convinced a small-but-significant amount of voters that Germany can meet its needs while demonstrating solidarity with displaced people. The SPD is polling even with Merkel's Christian Democrats, and the AfD has fallen below 10 percent - "still in my opinion too much," Sippel said.
For years nations small and large, from Hungary to Britain, have been accused of shirking their responsibilities when it comes to providing asylum to displaced people. The European Commission's call for solidarity in deportations seems more like giving up after years of calling for solidarity in accepting displaced people rather than leaving them warehoused in facilities in Greece and Italy and later Germany and now Turkey.
Sippel said it remained important to find a common path forward, even if the plan put forth by the European Commission - and the larger white paper it released for the EU's future on Thursday - does not represent a bold proposal for advancement. "I'm clearly convinced that the European Union is something we all need and that we do profit from," Sippel said. "If we don't start now, I'm afraid that we will end up with something that we see in the United States," she added. "I'm talking about building walls."