The proposals hinge on member states volunteering to ease the load on countries that see the most migrant arrivals by sea either by taking in refugees or providing logistical support or deporting rejected applicants.

"We need these people because we are an aging society," says top EU migration official Ylva Johansson. (Reuters)

The European Union's executive has launched a contentious plan for overhauling broken migration rules to resolve years of bitterness and provide a better welcome for refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa.

The most sensitive element of the plan released on Wednesday would de facto oblige each state to host an unspecified number of refugees – something eastern nations Poland and Hungary are dead against – or take one of several opt-out routes under "mandatory solidarity."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels that the “New Pact for Migration and Asylum” offers Europe “a fresh start.”

“We want to live up to our values and at the same time face the challenges of a globalised world," she said.

READ MORE: World tolerance for migrants on decline

'Migration is complex'

Endless feuds over where to relocate people have caused bad blood between the Mediterranean-shore countries where they mainly arrive, the reluctant easterners, and the richer northern states where many of the new arrivals aspire to live.

In 2015, more than a million people made it to EU shores, overwhelming security and welfare networks, and fomenting far-right sentiment.

Hungary and Poland launched a legal challenge against a failed EU scheme for mandatory migrant quotas set up in haste after the 2015 influx.

The arguments rage on even though the entry of unauthorised migrants into the world’s biggest trading bloc has dwindled to a relative trickle in recent years. Some 140,000 people arrived last year, compared to around 2 million migrants who entered legally, the European Commission says. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have had to cater to far more.

"Migration is complex, the old system to deal with it in Europe no longer works," said von der Leyen. 

"Moria is a stark reminder," she added, referring to a Greek migrant camp destroyed by fire this month.

READ MORE: War and coronavirus pushes migrants to leave Libya and head to Europe

Key points in the new proposals

A country would receive $11,750 from the bloc's budget per adult taken in.

The Commission plans would scratch a rule that the first country of arrival is responsible for asylum requests, which put too much burden on Mediterranean nations.

Under the new proposal, those arriving would be assigned to countries based on family links, history of education or work, or having a visa issued by a member state.

"We need these people because we are an ageing society," top EU migration official Ylva Johansson said.

Members of the EU can opt out of taking in some refugees and help ease the load on countries that see the most migrant arrivals by sea by providing other material and logistical support.

Those not willing, could take charge of deporting people whose applications are refused. This option might suit Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, who are notoriously reluctant to accept refugees.

Migrants from countries with a lower than 20 percent positive response rate to asylum applications, such as Tunisia or Morocco, will be processed at the border and within 12 weeks.

While the plan was sure to take flak from countries who would prefer to talk about tightening borders and asylum laws, it won early approval from Malta.

"Returning those with no right to asylum is crucial. Agree that solidarity must not be optional," said Prime Minister Robert Abela.

Xenophobic compromises

The proposal disappointed migrants' rights activists and refugee agencies, who had hoped for compulsory quotas for refugee settlement and an end to a "Fortress Europe" ringed by squalid refugee camps.

"It's a compromise between xenophobia and cowardice," tweeted Francois Gemenne, Belgian migration expert and professor of environmental geopolitics.

International Catholic charity Caritas said the proposals could harm human rights, dilute legal safeguards and lead to more detentions.

READ MORE: Greece moves Moria refugee and migrants to temporary new camp

Returning migrants who can't get asylum

The 450-page proposals spanning five different pan-EU laws put emphasis on sending back those who fail to win asylum.

Intended to be in place from 2023, the plan also aims to open more legal routes for migrants, and work better with countries hosting and managing people before they reach Europe.

It would also put EU countries with external borders under closer monitoring to stop illegal pushing back of people after reports of such action by Hungary, Croatia, Greece and Malta.

People saved at sea would be relocated in the bloc – rather than sent back – with charities not criminalised for rescues.

If, however, a country were falling under major pressure, it could seek to activate a crisis mechanism under which its EU peers would be obliged to take people in or send them back.

Commitments to return migrants who are unable to win asylum that fail to materialise in eight months – which national migration experts and some EU officials admit is tight – would transform into a relocation obligation, anathema to the reluctant easterners.

'Mandatory relocation'

"Bottom line for us is that we might, and very probably will end up with mandatory relocation," said a senior diplomat from one of the eastern EU countries. "That is a no go for us."

That means the proposal faces an uphill battle despite having German Chancellor Angela Merkel's backing.

Merkel suffered electoral setbacks after opening Germany to Syrian refugees back in 2015. 

But in a sign of changing mood, German mayors now offered to take in refugees from the Greek fire and protesters even chanted: "We have space!"

A Gallup poll, however, showed the world was becoming less tolerant of migrants, with EU states Hungary and Croatia near the top of the index of the least-accepting countries.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies