Out of sight, out of mind: EU planning to offshore asylum applications?


In a letter sent to EU heads of state last month, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen named 2024 “a landmark year for EU migration and asylum policy,” but noted that the agreement on new legislation “is not the end.” She went on to refer to the possibility of “tackling asylum applications further from the EU external border,” describing it as an idea “which will certainly deserve our attention.”

Support our work: become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.

Image: European Parliament, CC BY 2.0

“Safe havens”

The idea of offshoring asylum applications has come in and out of vogue in Europe over the last two decades. In the early 2000s, a number of states wanted camps established in Albania and Ukraine, with the Blair government’s “safe haven” proposals providing an inspiration to other governments in the EU.

The idea has come back with a bang in the last few years, with the UK attempting to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda (a plan now shelved), and EU governments noting their approval for similar schemes.

Austria plays a key role in the externalisation of border and migration controls to the Balkans, and the country’s interior minister has called on the EU to introduce "asylum procedures in safe third countries," referring to "a model that Denmark and Great Britain are also following." Denmark adopted their own Rwanda plan, but that was suspended last year.

“Innovative strategies”

Now the idea has made it to the top of the EU’s political pyramid.

“Many Member States are looking at innovative strategies to prevent irregular migration by tackling asylum applications further from the EU external border,” says von der Leyen’s letter (pdf).

“There are ongoing reflections on ideas which will certainly deserve our attention when our next institutional cycle is under way,” it continues, suggesting that the intention is to get working on plans quickly from September onwards.

The news comes just as almost 100 organisations, including Statewatch, have published a statement calling on EU institutions and member states to uphold the right to asylum in Europe, underlining that attempts to outsource asylum processing have caused "immeasurable human suffering and rights violations."

Von der Leyen goes on to indicate that the offshoring of asylum applications may be tacked onto existing migration control initiatives: “Building on experience with the emergency transit mechanisms or the 1:1, we can work upstream on migratory routes and ways of developing these models further.”

The phrase “the 1:1” refers to the intended human trading scheme introduced by the 2016 EU-Turkey deal: “For every Syrian being returned to Turkey from Greek islands, another Syrian will be resettled from Turkey to the EU.” In a seven-year period, up to May 2023, fewer than 40,000 people were resettled under the scheme, while tens of thousands of people remained trapped in Greek camps awaiting their intended removal to Turkey.

The current Commission president, who is soon likely to be elected for a second five-year term, goes on to say that the EU can “draw on the route-based approach being developed by UNHCR and IOM,” allowing the EU to “support the setting up of functioning national asylum systems in partner countries while strengthening our cooperation on returns to countries of origin.” In short: someone else should take care of the problem.

These efforts will be bolstered by the new Asylum Procedure Regulation, says the letter, with the Commission considering “how to better work in synergy with future designated safe third countries.”

“Hybrid attacks”

The letter closes with a consideration of the use of so-called “hybrid attacks” by the EU’s geopolitical enemies.

“When I was in Lappeenranta [in Finland] in April, it was clear that Russia’s actions at the border with Finland, or those of Belarus at the border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, are hybrid attacks aimed at undermining the security of our external borders, as well as that of the border regions and our citizens,” von der Leyen writes.

The Commission president goes on to suggest that more legislation may be forthcoming on the topic, further reinforcing the security approach to migration, despite the EU having only just approved rules on the issue, where the term used is “instrumentalisation of migrants.”

“We will therefore need to continue reflecting on strengthening the EU’s legal framework to provide for an appropriate response not only from a migration but also from a security perspective in line with the Treaties,” says the letter.

The need for new legislation is also hinted at in the “strategic agenda” adopted by the European Council at the end of June, the same meeting to which von der Leyen’s letter was addressed.

That document states the European Council’s intention to “find joint solutions to the security threat of instrumentalised migration.”

As for the people targeted by all these initiatives, they are barely mentioned in the letter – but von der Leyen notes that the Commission is “conscious of the need… to enable durable solutions to be found for the migrants themselves.”

It might be remarked, however, that “solutions” will likely only be considered “durable” to the EU if they are outside its territory.


Our work is only possible with your support.
Become a Friend of Statewatch from as little as £1/€1 per month.

Further reading

04 April 2024

Hardwiring the externalisation of border control into EU law

EU institutions have almost finalised negotiations on the Pact on Migration and Asylum, with MEPs due to vote on a range of new laws next week. Approval for the measures is almost certain – and when they come into force, they will turn the externalisation of migration and border control into legal obligations.

13 February 2024

Deportations: EU considers stepping up visa sanctions after Iraq and Gambia change policies

Iraq and The Gambia have both been targeted with EU visa sanctions due to non-cooperation on deportations, and it seems the measures – or the threat of them – may have led to a new willingness to accept deportation flights from EU states. The instrument was first introduced in 2019, and was first applied to The Gambia in 2021. Now member states are discussing the way ahead for the visa sanctions regime, which may see more threats levelled at third countries deemed insufficiently cooperative with EU deportations.


Spotted an error? If you've spotted a problem with this page, just click once to let us know.

Report error