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Divided Europe seeks to overhaul defunct migration policies

* EU wants new rules for migration from Africa, Middle East

* Commission proposal sure to stir up divisions within bloc

* “Mandatory solidarity” would see each state take some arrivals

BRUSSELS, Sept 23 (Reuters) - The European Union’s executive proposed on Wednesday overhauling the bloc’s broken migration and asylum rules, seeking to end years of feuds and bitterness over the many people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

The most contentious element would impose a legal obligation on each state to host an assigned number of refugees - something eastern nations including Poland and Hungary are dead against - as well as helping in other ways under “mandatory solidarity”.

Each state would receive 10,000 euros ($11,750) per adult taken in, funded from the bloc’s budget.

Endless rows over where to locate refugees and migrants have caused bad blood between the Mediterranean-shore countries where they mainly come, the reluctant easterners, and the richer northern states where many of the new arrivals aspire to live.

The bloc was caught off guard in 2015 when more than a million people made it to EU shores, overwhelming security and welfare networks, and fomenting far-right sentiment.

But the bloc’s top migration official said the crisis was over, with the EU now receiving some 1.5 million net new foreigners coming legally to live and work per year, compared to only 140,000 asylum seekers arriving irregularly.

“We need these people,” said Swedish EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson. “Managing migration is not about finding a perfect solution but a solution acceptable to all.”

The executive European Commission’s plans to overhaul its defunct system include scratching a rule that the first EU country of arrival be responsible for asylum requests, which put too much burden on Mediterranean nations.

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

‘MANDATORY SOLIDARITY’

In the 400-page proposals spanning five different pan-EU laws, Johansson put emphasis on sending back those who fail to win asylum. “It’s necessary to have the acceptance of EU citizens to relocate (host) those who have the right to stay to be able to send back those who are not eligible,” she said.

The plan, sure to stir up heated disputes, would also aim to open up more legal routes for refugees and migrants, and work more closely with countries hosting and managing people before they reach Europe.

It would also put EU countries with external borders under closer monitoring to ensure they do not violate the law after multiple reports of pushbacks in Hungary, Croatia, Greece or Malta.

Under the plan, people rescued in the sea would have to be relocated in the bloc - rather than sent back - and the Commission recommended that member states do not criminalise charities involved in such rescues.

At times of regular immigration, all EU states would be obliged to help under the new idea of “mandatory solidarity” by relocating or returning people, or offering material assistance on the ground in arrival countries.

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.

The complex system would eventually lead to each EU country having to take in some refugees.

Despite having German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the driving force behind it, the plan faces an uphill battle.

The Commission said all elements should be in place from 2023.

“My guess is that I will have zero member states saying it’s a perfect proposal,” said Johansson. “But I do hope that I’ll also have 27 member states saying it’s a balanced approach and let’s work on this... It’s about realising we have a common problem and we have to manage it together.”

After opening Germany’s doors to Syrian refugees back in 2015, Merkel suffered electoral setbacks as the far right surged on anti-immigration sentiment.

But in a sign of the changing mood, German mayors offered this month to take in refugees after an overcrowded camp on the Greek island of Lesbos burnt to the ground. Protesters took to the streets in many German cities chanting “We have space!”.

Reporting and writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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