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Realism Over Migrant Returns Can Break Deadly Cycle in Mediterranean

The E.U. can help Italy deliver fast, fair asylum decisions and return people who don’t qualify for refugee status, says policy expert Gerald Knaus. Along with incentives for African nations to accept returnees, he argues it can provide a breakthrough on the sea route.

Written by Gerald Knaus Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Activists gather in Italy on World Refugee Day.AFP/Alberto PIZZOLI

The E.U. urgently needs a credible policy on asylum and border management – one that combines control of land and sea borders with respect for existing refugee law. It must treat asylum seekers respectfully and deter irregular migration by those who do not qualify for protection.

This plan must recognize a basic truth – which holds for Italy as it does for the rest of the E.U. – that member states are bad at returning third-country nationals who do not qualify for protection. This is largely because most poor countries in the world have little interest in taking back their own citizens, who often send remittances.

The Need for Return Realism

How can the E.U. reduce the number of arrivals – and deaths – in the Central Mediterranean? The key lies in quickly processing asylum applications and in quickly returning those whose claims are rejected to their countries of origin. This requires fixing a “day X” – a date from which countries of origin commit to help take back without delay all of their nationals who have arrived in Italy and do not get protection.

The impact of such a policy would be a sharp fall in arrivals. Nigerians were the largest group of arrivals in Italy in 2016. The majority would be unlikely to risk their lives going through the Sahara, Libya and the Central Mediterranean – and spending heavily on smugglers – if the probability of being returned to Nigeria within a few weeks of arrival in Italy was 80 percent.

Ensuring that Nigeria, Senegal and other countries take back their nationals who do not qualify for protection after an agreed date should be the chief priority in talks between the E.U. and African countries of origin – similar to the commitment Turkey made to take back without delay people who arrive in Greece after March 20, 2016.

African countries are wary of readmission agreements under which they would have to take back an unlimited number of their citizens who arrived in the E.U. in the past. Specific “take-back” agreements are needed between the E.U. and African countries of origin that focus only on those who arrive in Italy after these agreements enter into force.

These agreements must also offer incentives, such as access to annual quotas for legal migration, including via scholarships and work visas. Such agreements would have no direct impact on current remittance flows.

What is needed is a short, simple statement of mutual commitments, similar to the E.U.-Turkey statement in March 2016 or the two U.S.-Cuba statements of 1994 and 1995 (see annex A here). The E.U. needs similar agreements, known as Legal Access and Return Statements (LARS), with African countries of origin now.

The Second Step

Italy needs an asylum system that is able to process all claims within a few weeks. This should be the top priority for Italy and the E.U. – developing Italy’s ability to deal with claims within four to six weeks, while ensuring a high quality of decisions through quality control mechanisms and trained staff, competent interpreters and available legal aid.

This is above all else a matter of resources and competent management. Quick decisions and rapid readmission, based on E.U. take-back agreements with African countries, would sharply reduce the number of people who stay in the E.U. after their applications are rejected.

Such a system would also reduce the number of people arriving in Europe with little chance of receiving protection as refugees. The number of people arriving outside of formal migration channels (irregular arrivals) will become manageable, there will be less business for smugglers and fewer deaths at sea. The aim should be to reduce the number of all irregular arrivals by sea to far below 100,000 a year (for an E.U. of over 500 million people) in 2018.

The Third Step

Almost all current irregular arrivals to the E.U. come through Greece and Italy. Sending E.U. asylum missions to these two countries would dramatically reduce the pressure on all other European asylum services as well. These missions are composed of asylum experts from E.U. countries who will be integrated into first-instance decision-making upon the request of Rome and Athens. Then, everyone who receives protection as refugees should be subject to relocation across the E.U.

If such a plan were implemented, there would be no need for the doomed debates over reforming the Dublin regulation that are currently taking place in Brussels. A Rome/Valletta mechanism – based on E.U. asylum missions in border states, reformed relocation of those who are granted protection and E.U. readmission from these states – should replace the current Dublin system.

E.U. member states should simultaneously push forward the global debate on orderly transfers of refugees through resettlement. The only way to do so is to lead by example, building up E.U. capacity for resettlement as well boosting the U.N. refugee agency’s capacity to do more. In recent decades, global resettlement has not exceeded 100,000 a year and the U.S. has taken the lion’s share of those moved.

Under the Trump presidency, the U.S. is unlikely to continue to play this role and the E.U. needs to step up its efforts. Until now, European states have not built up the bureaucratic machinery for large-scale resettlement. A full implementation of the resettlement provisions of the E.U.-Turkey statement is vital for this reason and is an urgent priority that all human rights organizations should be lobbying for today.

European leaders need to demonstrate to their electorates that it is possible to control external sea borders without undermining the Refugee Convention. Europe can protect both human rights and its borders with the right focus and a plan based on humanism, realism and interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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