What does the EU’s new migration policy mean for Ireland?

The European Parliament approved a major overhaul of asylum policy across the EU, which will mean sweeping changes to the current system in Ireland

The imagery of what are known as “closed controlled” detention facilities for asylum seekers in Greece is striking, with fences topped by barbed wire keeping people in, all overseen by police.

The centres set up on islands such as Samos and elsewhere in recent years are what some human rights organisations say are “pilots” of prison-like infrastructure that may become the norm under a new European Union pact on asylum.

Earlier this week the European Parliament approved a major overhaul of asylum policy across the union, which will result in sweeping changes to the current system in Ireland and elsewhere.

In some cases under the pact, asylum seekers who arrive in Europe irregularly could be detained at borders, with a decision to be made on their case within 12 weeks. If their claim is rejected, that would be followed by a fast-tracked deportation.


The Government has committed Ireland to opt-in to all elements of the reforms, due to come into force by 2026. The reform of asylum policy in the EU had been debated since 2016, following the start of the surge in migrants fleeing to Europe the year before.

The pact approved this week was the product of a number of false starts, backed by the three largest groups in the parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the centrist Renew group, and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

Before the tense vote on Wednesday, some MEPs involved in brokering the deal were concerned it could fall at the last hurdle. It had been opposed by the Left grouping and the Greens, who felt it was a regressive step, as well as far-right politicians who said it did not go far enough to stem the flow of asylum seekers to Europe.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil MEPs voted for the agreement, while those in the Left group, Clare Daly, Mick Wallace, Luke “Ming” Flanagan and Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus voted against most of the measures, as did Grace O’Sullivan, Green MEP.

The voting session was disrupted for several minutes by protesters appealing for MEPs to reject the proposals. In the end, after a series of votes, the controversial overhaul of European asylum policy was voted through.

There had been concerns that if the reform was not passed it would fall to the next parliament to pick it up again after European elections in June. With polls currently predicting the far right to make up a much larger force, many centrist and centre-left MEPs backed the pact, over fears migration reform would be even harder in the next parliament.

At national government level, aspects of the reforms have been opposed by Poland and Hungary. The two eastern countries have hit out at burden-sharing measures to get other member states to help counterparts in southern countries, who are often the point of arrival for asylum seekers coming to Europe by sea. Under this part of the deal, EU countries can accept asylum seekers under a relocation scheme, pay €20,000 for each person they refuse to take, or contribute by assisting border operations.

Civil servants will now start to draw up legislation for the Dáil to adopt the reforms into law in the Republic over the next two years.

The big question will be whether the changes will see the introduction of detention facilities like those seen on Greek islands such as Samos. One Government source said that in reality any new infrastructure would likely look more like the current reception centre for refugees and asylum seekers in the Citywest campus in Dublin.

Facilities that include security detaining asylum seekers subject to fast-tracked screening and checks would likely be very politically contentious.

At present, applications for asylum from those coming from countries deemed “safe” can be processed in about nine weeks, whereas other cases take upwards of a year, according to a Department of Justice source.

Speaking about the pact in Brussels this week, Taoiseach Simon Harris said it would give Ireland a “firmer” asylum system. “It will involve faster processing times, it will involve faster return processes and it will also involve providing more facilities,” Mr Harris said.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s EU office, said the new policy would increase the number of people held in “detention” at Europe’s borders.

Separate side deals the EU had struck with countries in northern Africa to provide funding in exchange for help curbing migration were also “hugely concerning”. she said.

“They become allies on migration and therefore Europe becomes a lot more muted in its criticism on the human rights situation, we’ve seen that in Egypt, we’ve seen that in Tunisia,” Ms Geddie said.

Julien Buha Collette, Médecins Sans Frontières head of migration programmes, said the new policy would result in people being “trapped, obstructed, detained, and denied safety throughout Europe, both at sea and in non-EU countries”.