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Following the success of the EU-Turkey deal in drastically reducing the numbers crossing the Aegean into Greece, the attention of EU decision-makers has now turned to stemming the flow of migrants across the central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy. This is now the busiest crossing for asylum seekers entering the EU with some 180 000 arrivals in Italy in 2016, many of whom originate from sub-Saharan African countries with low rates of asylum acceptance in Europe. It is also the world’s most lethal border crossing: responsible for the majority of the 5 000 deaths in the Mediterranean in 2016, the central Mediterranean route is at the heart of Europe’s humanitarian crisis.
The challenge has prompted extreme proposals from some high-profile European politicians. Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has claimed that Australia’s ‘offshore’ approach to processing asylum applications would be the best way to deter irregular arrivals on EU soil, thereby undermining the people smuggling trade and allowing European agencies to regain control of the external border. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has made similar comments, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has claimed that the EU should build “a giant refugee city” on the Libyan coast to process asylum claims. More recently still, Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil suggested establishing EU asylum centres in Niger and Jordan, while imposing a cap on the number of spontaneous asylum claims accepted on EU soil.
The offshore approach in question was first adopted by the Australian government in 2013 under the name “Operation Sovereign Borders”, and has had unquestionable success as a deterrent for asylum seekers headed for Australian shores (drastically reducing the number of deaths in Australian waters in the process). It works by intercepting asylum seekers arriving by boat and taking them to offshore centres on Nauru or Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where they are detained while their asylum applications are processed. As much as the policy may have had successes in numbers, however, these centres have been widely condemned as inhumane by human rights organisations, and have brought the Australian government under considerable international scrutiny.
In a European context, such a policy would see migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean and returned to purpose-built centres in North Africa (most likely in Egypt or Tunisia) to have their asylum claims processed. The feasibility of such a plan, however, is highly dubious, and it has drawn criticism from European leaders and commentators alike. Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn condemned Austrian proposals to create asylum centres outside the EU as a “right-wing national line of thinking,” while numerous analysts have highlighted how expensive and logistically challenging it would be to upscale Australia’s policy to accommodate twenty times the number of sea arrivals in Europe. More problematic still is the question of legal feasibility – a recent publication by the Centre for European Policy Studies highlights the incommensurability of extraterritorial processing with European and international law, among multiple other practical challenges.
But while the offshore asylum approach does indeed appear to be a step too far in the fight to regain control of the EU’s borders, the recent summit in Valletta shows that EU leaders are more than happy to externalise the problem of irregular migration to its full permissible limits. At the meeting on 3 February, it was declared that Libya’s UN-backed government would receive €200m to help curb the problem of irregular migration, with funding and training targeted at reinforcing its coastguard. Building on deals brokered between the Italian and Libyan governments, this pledge shows signs of the EU building on the Turkey deal in attempts to shift responsibility for its migrant ‘crisis’ to the countries of origin and transit.
With EU decision-makers under increasing pressure to regain control over EU borders and restore freedom of movement within the Schengen zone, the ‘offshore’ discussion and Valletta summit pledges show that repressive actions against irregular migration are increasingly displacing the language of solidarity. A much more effective approach to removing the incentive for irregular migration and undermining the smuggling trade would be a combination of humane deterrents and a widening of legal channels for claiming asylum and working in Europe.
An example of what this could look like has been proposed by the European Stability Initiative, which insists that a humane asylum policy and effective border control are both possible if resources are concentrated to quickly process asylum claims in Italy and Greece and speed up the repatriation of unsuccessful claimants (through various ‘take-back agreements’), making numbers manageable and undermining the incentive of making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. While this is just one suggestion, what is clear is that EU leaders urgently need to devise innovative policies that satisfy the call for secure borders while respecting obligations to protect refugees and save lives.