As frontline countries continue to protest the lack of support from the EU in facing migratory inflows via the Mediterranean, fourteen EU countries have come together to create a new solidarity mechanism, in a bid to relieve the pressure. Germany and France launched the mechanism precisely to help distribute migrants across the bloc, thus circumventing the EU asylum system – widely referred to as the Dublin Regulation.
Based on the Dublin Regulation, asylum requests need to be processed by the member state in which a migrant first disembarks. This, more often than not, means Southern European countries, like Italy, Greece, and Malta, are on the front line, absorbing the vast majority of those who make the crossing. And frequently, the people already living there feel overwhelmed –leading to hard-line policies and ad hoc deals to push migrants into other EU states.
Italy, in particular, took in the bulk of migrants rescued by humanitarian groups at sea. Yet this prompted a populist backlash, and played a key role in catapulting the League and the 5-Star Movement to an electoral victory in 2018. Since then, the Italian government has sought to close all access to the nation’s ports for such efforts.
The “migrant sharing” proposal was launched at a meeting in Paris, including both interior ministers and representatives of UN agencies that deal with migration and refugees, to discuss the migrant crisis and security issues, following up from a previous gathering last week in Finland.
“The conclusion of this morning’s meeting is that, in principle, fourteen member states, at this stage, have expressed their agreement with the Franco-German document”, French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists. Details of how this initiative works have not been released, but Macron said the process would be “quick” and “automatic.”
The roster of states that have signed on include Finland, Luxemburg, Portugal, Lithuania, Croatia and Ireland, in addition to France and Germany. Macron said an additional six countries support the principle, but declined to name them.
Speaking after Monday’s meeting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “I think that we have not yet reached our goal, but we have managed to get much further than we have been before.”
Italy on the Outs
Despite the new mechanism being primarily aimed at relieving the pressures faced by frontline countries like Italy, Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, was not present at the meeting. But in a letter to his French counterpart, Christophe Castaner, Salvini warned of the effect of decisions “solely taken in Paris and Berlin”.
Governments in Paris and Berlin “cannot decide migration policies and ignore the demands of the most-exposed countries like us and Malta”, he said.
In a tweet on Monday evening, Salvini said that “Italy does not take orders from others” and “if Macron wants to discuss immigrants”, he should go to Rome.
Ultimately, this new plan failed to satisfy Salvini, who demands a more equitable distribution of arriving migrants.
He argues that current international laws were drafted to handle shipwrecks and other emergencies, not mass migration flows. Moreover, he adds that the majority of arriving migrants don’t qualify for asylum, making them in-eligible for relocation elsewhere – as this plan proposes. Instead, Salvini wants other nations to start accepting migrant ships directly into their ports, according to a rota.
But France still insists that those saved at sea should be taken to the nearest safe port, which is almost always Italy or Malta. Nor has Macron agreed to share the majority of migrants who do not qualify for asylum protection.
“We must respect humanitarian and maritime law, which means that once a boat is in international waters it must find refuge in the nearest safe port”, the French president told reporters. “This a legal and practical necessity. The only way to handle this is through cooperation.”
Salvini, in his capacity as Italian interior minister, responded by calling Monday’s informal meeting a “flop” that “basically said Italy must continue to be the refugee camp of Europe”, according to a statement.
While Salvini and France at least agree on the principle that Europe should distribute the burden, not everyone else does. Hungary and Poland have flat out refused to take in people or sign onto any burden-sharing initiatives, a stance that is unlikely to change. This prompted Macron to issue a warning at Monday’s meeting, saying he would be against releasing EU funds to nations that refuse to do their share for asylum seekers.
“Europe can’t be ‘à la carte’ when it comes down to solidarity. We can’t have states which say, ‘We don’t want any of your Europe when it’s about sharing the burden but we do when it’s about structural funds’”, he said. “That won’t last, or in any case, I won’t sign off on financial provisions which go in that direction.”
Escape from Libya
The stakes are high. The crossing is rough, and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 426 people have died during attempts to reach Europe via the Mediterranean sea, just this year alone. And often migrants face hardship and abuse before making it to the water.
Abuse in transitory camps in Morocco and Libya is rampant, prompting Macron to ask the Libyan government to guarantee measures to ensure the safety of migrants within their borders. Making matters worse, Libya is rocked by chaos thanks to an ongoing conflict with renegade commander Khalifa Haftar‘s Libya National Army (LNA). The LNA is attempting to wrestle control of the capital, Tripoli, from Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
According to the UN, an estimated six thousand refugees and migrants are held in detention centres in Libya alone, and approximately fifty thousand registered refugees and asylum seekers are scattered throughout the rest of Libya. The UN has noted that Libya is unsafe for migrations and has called for the release of those being held in detention centres multiple times.
Despite that, the EU has continued to support the Libyan coastguard, which helps intercept and forcibly return people who are caught trying to leave Libya, while daring to embark on the treacherous Mediterranean crossing. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has criticised the EU’s approach, saying the suffering and deaths on the sea were preventable.
“Politicians would have you believe that the deaths of hundreds of people at sea, and the suffering of thousands of refugees and migrants trapped in Libya, are the acceptable price of attempts to control migration”, said Sam Turner, MSF’s head of mission for search and rescue and Libya.
“The cold reality is that while they herald the end of the so-called European migration crisis, they are knowingly turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis these policies perpetuate in Libya and at sea.”