Mere hours before 100 African migrants drowned off the coast of Libya on June 29, European Union leaders appeared cautiously optimistic about a key agreement on migration struck at a two-day EU summit in Brussels. But the deal, which calls for the establishment of migrant processing centres in both EU and non-EU states, among other measures, has been harshly criticized for the vagueness and insufficiency of its commitments.
While there were other topics on the agenda at the recent summit, all of them — including Brexit — took a back seat to the migration crisis, which has become the principal threat to an already-strained EU.
The crisis that European leaders are so desperately trying to tackle, however, has little to do with the horrific human suffering that thousands of the most vulnerable people on Earth are enduring. Or with the root causes that have driven so many to risk drowning — toddlers in hand — in the unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean.
The crisis that the new agreement aims to contain is ultimately rooted in political. And each national leader is playing a delicate balancing act between challenging their European counterparts and appeasing their domestic constituencies.
Growing pressure from states that feel excessively affected by irregular migrant flows, such as Italy and Hungary, has catapulted the issue to the forefront of debates about a coordinated EU-wide response to the crisis. Italian Prime Minister Giussepe Conte, who heads a right-wing, populist government, notably threatened to boycott the EU summit agreement unless it included measures to address Italy’s concerns around migration.
Remarkably, the issue has peaked politically at a time when irregular migration into Europe is actually in decline. In fact, the influx has steadily diminished in the past three years and is now 96 percent lower than it was in mid-2015.
Still, the premise underlying the EU migration agreement speaks to an increasingly pervasive view, one at odds with well-established precepts of international refugee law: that the plight of migrants is not a responsibility that must be met, but a burden to be avoided. Surely the driving question for Europeans is: “How do we make it stop?” But it refers not to the humanitarian drama of the forcibly displaced, just to their ability to reach Europe.
At the conclusion of the summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who was elected on a hostile anti-immigration platform, minced no words when he defiantly declared, “The invasion should be stopped. And to stop the invasion means to have a strong border.”
Orban was not alone. In addition to Hungary, receiving countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy have intensified their demands for a shared EU response to the disproportionate impact of recent migration flows on their territories.
The longstanding first-country principle — which dictates that the first country migrants reach is responsible for processing their claims — is at the heart of their discontent. But others such as France, Austria and Germany want to preserve the norm. Their chief concern is curbing the “secondary movement” of migrants who leave that first country to make an asylum claim in another.
These European states see porous borders in receiving countries as the primary concern and are calling for stronger controls to keep people from moving north and west. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wryly quipped that the only way migrants would arrive in Austria first is if they parachuted in.
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the stakes are particularly high. Elements of her coalition government threatened to shut down German borders if the issue of secondary movement is not resolved. Such a move could trigger a chain reaction that would jeopardize the passport-free Schengen-zone — perhaps the most emblematic feature of the EU.
So, how does the recent deal reconcile such sharp differences among individual EU members and regional groups?
A vague pledge was made to create “control centres” across Europe to process asylum claims and alleviate the load for receiving countries, but it is less than certain that this will actually materialize. The establishment of such centres is to be purely voluntary, and already Austria, France and Germany announced that they had no intention of setting them up.
The most ambitious part of the deal calls for setting up similar processing centres in Africa. Migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean would be processed in these before setting foot in Europe. In other words, the clear intent is to shift responsibility to countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger, and Tunisia. And it remains to be seen which incentives are necessary to persuade these countries to take up this task.
The offloading of responsibility to Africa raises troubling questions about the obligations of EU member states under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugee advocates around the world have expressed concern at the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis, and remain skeptical of the types of measures being considered.
A paper published by the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration — on the same day the migration deal was announced — cautioned about efforts to outsource its responsibilities and called on EU members to uphold “the right to asylum and the rights of migrants.” Iverna McGowan of Amnesty International put it more bluntly: “EU leaders have chosen to pander to xenophobic governments who are hell bent on keeping Europe closed, and to push even more responsibility onto countries outside the EU.”
Humanitarian organizations have also rejected efforts by the EU to limit their ability to help migrants in distress. The European Council has warned, for instance, that NGO relief boats must defer to the Libyan Coast Guard, which routinely takes migrants back to Africa.
“Saving lives at sea is not a crime,” said Doctors Without Borders’ chief of emergencies Karline Kleijer. “EU member states are abdicating their responsibilities to save lives and deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea.”
The downward trend in terms of upholding the rights of migrants and the responsibilities of states under international refugee law is not unique to Europe. The EU migration deal came only days after United States President Donald Trump brazenly stated that he would not allow his country to become a refugee camp. What do these responses say about the fate of stateless migrants?
This is the worst refugee crisis in history. According to figures from the UN Refugee Agency, there are now more than 68 million forcibly displaced persons around the world, a number even higher than after the end of the Second World War.
The migrants who drowned last month in the Mediterranean came from some of the most troubled hotspots of the world, including South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria. Many had survived years of armed violence, often exacerbated by European arms flowing into their regions. And at exactly the same time that they were risking their lives to claim asylum on European soil, EU members were devising ways to keep them out.