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A Reply to Pragmatists on Mediterranean Migration: Be More Realistic

In response to a recent proposal on how Italy can combine effective migration control with human rights, policy expert Giulia Lagana argues that the plan lacks the very political realism that it accuses the human rights community of neglecting.

Written by Giulia Lagana Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
People covered with red blankets to keep them warm seen inside a tent as they wait to being attended by members of Spanish Red Cross.Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A recent event in Brussels on the second anniversary of the E.U.-Turkey deal once again highlighted the disconnect between human rights advocates and the civil servants defending the agreement. The oft-repeated mantra in the E.U. capital is that the agreement has been a resounding success; NGOs and academics continue to point to the human rights cost, with neither side budging from their respective positions.

Gerald Knaus and John Dalhuisen’s new proposal to fix the situation along the central Mediterranean route appears to offer a way out of the dead end – an effective yet humane plan to bring down irregular migrant numbers while also safeguarding human rights.

The starting point is laudable. What their four-point plan lacks, however, is precisely the dose of practical and political realism that the human rights community often stands accused of not delivering.

Saving more lives at sea in the Mediterranean through joint E.U. efforts, as Knaus and Dalhuisen propose, is precisely what the bloc should be prioritizing. Yet the E.U.’s naval operation off the coast of Libya, EUNAVFOR MED or Operation Sophia, is rather mandated to counter people smuggling and trafficking, as well as providing controversial training to the motley crews posing as the Libyan coast guard. Meanwhile, the E.U. border agency’s new Operation Themis has retreated even farther from the Libyan coast, where most shipwrecks take place.

The recent prosecution in Sicily of an NGO for refusing to hand refugees over to armed Libyan coast guard officials – a move the European Commission appeared to condone in a statement – does not bode well for hopes of the E.U. stepping up search and rescue efforts.

The second proposal by Knaus and Dalhuisen is for all migrants intercepted by Libyan patrol boats and disembarked in Libya to be immediately evacuated to Niger by the International Organization for Migration. This would save the men, women and children trying to flee the country from being returned to face the horrific abuse in Libyan detention centers. It would also allow for proper screening in Niger of the migrants, some of whom – as UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, has repeatedly stressed – may require international protection and should not be repatriated after summary identification in overcrowded, dangerous jails in Libya.

However, it would turn the desperate endeavor of boarding rickety inflatable boats to try to reach a place of safety into even more of a lottery than it currently is. If you do make it to the sole remaining NGO rescue boat, a commercial ship or an Italian coast guard vessel, you will get taken to Italy. If the Libyans catch you first, you will immediately be whisked away to Niger.

Many of those reaching Italy say they were able to flee only after multiple failed attempts. And the voluntary nature of repatriation becomes more tenuous even if the awful alternative of staying in Libya no longer exists, given that the Nigerien authorities have made it clear that they are not willing to host more migrants.

If UNHCR could rapidly process refugees in Niger and fly them to safety elsewhere, the protection lottery might not be as extreme. However, the current UNHCR emergency evacuation mechanism from Libya to Niger is on hold as European governments have failed to speed up the resettlement of a paltry 1,020. The local government’s concerns about becoming a dumping ground for Europe would hardly be allayed were Knaus and Dalhuisen’s proposal to be taken up by the E.U. As with other more or less unrealistic plans to offshore asylum processing outside Europe, the key question – what’s in it for receiving country X? – remains unanswered.

The third point in the plan, offering visas to migrants’ countries of origin in exchange for taking back more returnees, is better than proposals recently floated by the European Commission to sanction states that refuse to collaborate by making it harder for their nationals to obtain Schengen Area visas. However, it would only work if the numbers were high enough to be appealing for migrant-sending countries and if the visas included entry permits for low-skilled as well as high-skilled workers.

“Quick and fair” asylum procedures like those carried out in the Netherlands are the final element put forward in the plan, coupled with a call for the distribution around Europe of recognized refugees, which is an absolute red line for many E.U. states.

Unlike in the Netherlands, Knaus and Dalhuisen propose to detain all arriving asylum seekers, presumably to avoid them absconding to try to reach the mythical lands of perfect asylum standards further north in Europe. This would be problematic from a human rights point of view – asylum seekers should only be detained as a measure of last resort under international law, and children, who are not mentioned, should never be jailed. Further, as the situation in Greece following the E.U.-Turkey deal has shown, mass holding centers on Europe’s periphery beget human misery and dysfunctionality on a massive scale.

The numbers of asylum seekers in the Netherlands are also very low, at around 30,000 claims a year, while almost 130,000 applied for asylum in Italy in 2017. And, last but not least, the current Dutch coalition agreement foresees the end of the cornerstone of the high-quality system, free legal assistance during the crucial first phase of the asylum procedure – as well as worrying language about “revising” the 1951 U.N. refugee convention.

A healthy dose of pragmatism needs to be injected into the debate about managing migration in the E.U. – but it needs to be grounded in reality. Otherwise, short-term pain in the form of some restrictions on rights will not lead to long-term gain. Perhaps, rather than seeking to replicate the E.U.-Turkey deal with other, completely different countries, we should heed the hard lessons stemming from that agreement, and look for a better, fresh approach.

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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