Today we have seen the European Commission take a first step in shifting its Fortress Europe attitude towards the refugee crisis, but it will need to be implemented expansively and with the full backing of all EU member states.
(Brussels 13 May 2015) New proposals by the European Commission (EC) on asylum and resettlement represent a welcome shift in approach towards the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean which could result in small but important steps forward in tackling the global refugee crisis, said Amnesty International as the EC unveiled its Agenda on Migration today.
“Today we have seen the European Commission take a first step in shifting its Fortress Europe attitude towards the refugee crisis, but it will need to be implemented expansively and with the full backing of all EU member states,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“The Agenda on Migration not only contains a clear recognition of the need for effective search and rescue operations to save refugees and migrants from drowning at sea, but also acknowledges that alternative safe and legal routes are essential to reduce the number of people forced to put their lives in the hands of smugglers in order to reach safety in Europe.”
Search and Rescue
The Agenda recognizes the need to step up search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean restoring them to the level provided under Italy’s defunct Mare Nostrum operation. It confirms increases in funding allocated to the Triton operation which will “expand both the capability and the geographical scope” of the operation.
However the Agenda fails to explicitly make clear how far the operational area of Triton will be extended to ensure that it will cover those areas in the high seas where most refugees’ and migrants’ boats get into difficulties. Nor does it make clear whether vessels performing multiple functions outside Triton, including law-enforcement and military functions, will have the necessary explicit mandate to prioritize search and rescue duties at all times.
Given the recent emphasis the EU has placed on military action to combat smuggling, there is a danger that this will lead to a mission shift among assets (ships and aircraft) deployed outside of Triton away from search and rescue functions.
Despite these shortcomings, the Agenda does acknowledge operations by individual member states currently employing their assets to rescue people in peril at sea and makes clear that these patrols will be needed “for as long as migratory pressure persists”.
“Following the tragic drowning of thousands at sea, the EC has belatedly recognised that naval and aerial patrols along the main migratory routes, including those closer to Libya, are essential. Whether done by individual member states or through the Triton operation, what matters is the result: namely the saving of lives,” said John Dalhuisen.
Safe and legal routes to reach the EU
The Agenda accepts that vulnerable people who cannot safely stay in their own countries should not be left in the hands of smugglers and that safe and legal routes must be provided for them to reach Europe.
Proposals for an EU-wide resettlement scheme involving all member states, in addition to existing national resettlement schemes, are a good idea but are currently inadequate in scale with only 20,000 places proposed over the next two years. This number compares unfavourably with the 380,000 refugees from Syria alone that the UNHCR recommends be resettled by the end of 2016. Amnesty International calculates that EU countries should be looking to take around 100,000 of these refugees but have so far only pledged just more than 40,000 places.
It is essential that numbers in member states’ existing national resettlement schemes do not go down and that the EU scheme is increased to reflect the enormity of the global refugee crisis.
In addition to resettlement, the Agenda encourages member states to use other legal avenues to assist refugees, including sponsorships, humanitarian permits and family reunification.
The EC is also proposing a new scheme to be triggered in emergency situations to redistribute asylum seekers who have arrived in EU member states which have already received large numbers of asylum seekers.
“If implemented properly, in much larger numbers and accompanied by national resettlement programmes, a centrally administered EU-wide resettlement scheme could reduce the flow of refugees taking these perilous journeys. This, taken together with the proposed internal EU relocation scheme, would contribute to ensuring that the burden of a global refugee crisis is shared more equitably between EU member states and between the EU and other regions of the world,” said John Dalhuisen.
Fortress Europe’s new first lines of defence
The Agenda makes several proposals to cooperate with third countries to control migration flows which could effectively create first lines of defence for Fortress Europe as far afield as Niger. Many of these proposals still need to be developed. However, any external “multi-purpose centres” would need to respect essential safeguards to ensure the needs and rights of individuals are met and protected, in particular with respect to standards that guarantee a fair and efficient asylum procedure and access to effective remedies.
Resettlement is a mechanism whereby refugees (not migrants or asylum-seekers) who cannot find adequate protection in the host country are resettled to another country. Only refugees whose status has already been recognized (either by UNHCR or by the authorities of the host country) can be resettled.
The Agenda recognises that “[s]ome member states have already made a major contribution to global resettlement efforts” but adds that “others offer nothing – and in many cases they are not making an alternative contribution in terms of receiving and accepting asylum requests or helping to fund the efforts of others.”
The EC proposals says the number of resettled refugees allocated to each EU member state will depend on criteria such as GDP, population size, unemployment rate and numbers already accommodated in the past.
The EU recently announced plans to intensify efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by smugglers. If implemented, these measures could lead to thousands of migrants and refugees being trapped in a conflict zone. Egypt and Tunisia have also tightened border restrictions fearing a spill-over of the conflict in Libya, leaving migrants and refugees whose passports have often been stolen or confiscated by smugglers, criminal gangs or their Libyan employers with no other feasible route out of the country except to embark on a perilous sea journey to Europe.
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