Commentary – Externalization, Returns and Border Control – the Migration Agenda of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council

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by Radostina Pavlova, Center for Legal Aid – Voice in Bulgaria

Bulgaria has assumed the Presidency of the Council of the EU at a pivotal moment in European policy making in the area of migration and asylum. Thus, there is truth to the words of Jean-Claude Juncker spoken before the European Parliament Plenary on January 17, that Bulgaria “has both the plan and the determination to move Europe forward” on migration. The question missing from the public discussions so far is – in what direction? Is it a good direction for refugees, for Bulgarians, for Europe, for the world? One does not need to read too deep between the lines of the programme of the Bulgarian Presidency to reach a negative answer. The priorities set in the programme bow down to those imperatives in recent European policy in the area of migration, that have produced pernicious results – above all, the policy of externalizing Europe’s borders. The effects of these policies aiming to stop migrants, asylum seekers included, from reaching Europe at any cost, are out of sight for the average European – thus official Brussels easily touts the policies as successful. The Bulgarian programme follows in line: it talks about “strengthening border control”, using “all possible instruments […] to improve cooperation in the area of readmission” and “a pragmatic dialogue with third countries of origin and transit”. The implementation of the EU’s Partnership Framework, which essentially swaps promises for development aid to several African countries with their commitment to retaining migrants before they can reach Europe, and of the EU-Turkey Statement of 18 March 2016 is cited as a specific priority. What the programme does not mention, and what both the Bulgarian Prime Minister and Juncker should be asked about, are the increased death rate in the Mediterranean, the redirection of migrant flows towards more dangerous and more expensive routes, including the several boats of Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers crossing the Black Sea from Turkey to Romania last summer – a route described as one that only somebody desperate would take – and the shocking and inhumane images of slavery and torture of the migrants trapped in Lybia as a result of EU’s externalization policy, not to mention the EU and individual Member States becoming hostage and subject to blackmail by countries with authoritarian regimes and dismal human rights record. We cannot have a EU migration policy where the only measure of success is the number of people prevented from reaching Europe. The Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU is an opportunity for civil society from the region and beyond to shed light on what the policy direction taken actually means, and for progressive Europeans to have their voice heard and positions taken into consideration.