Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

EU looks at Morocco and Tunisia to offload migrants

  • The EU is looking at designating Morocco as a 'safe third country' (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Member states are pressing to get Morocco and Tunisia onto a list of so-called "safe third countries" on to which to offload people seeking asylum.

The move appears linked to stalled plans for setting up centres in countries rimming the Mediterranean to take in disembarked rescued migrants at sea.

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The safe third country concept entails dispatching people, regardless of nationality, back to places where they initially transited through.

It means, for instance, a sub-Saharan African who travelled through Morocco to reach Europe could be sent back to Morocco to have his asylum case heard.

In a letter, seen by EUobserver, the European Commission has tasked the EU support asylum agency (EASO) to help draw up an safe third country list on behalf of the EU states.

The list includes Montenegro, Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, and Ukraine.

Dated early August, the letter asks Easo's interim executive director Jamil Addou to collect information "relevant for an assessment of whether these countries can be designated as safe third countries at Union level."

The letter, written by Paraskevi Michou, who earlier this year took over as head of the commission's migration branch, wants the Easo probe completed before the end of month.

Michou says Easo's input "would be of upmost value" for the commission's contribution to creating the controversial list.

Not Easo's business?

But the task has riled some EU lawmakers given that the Malta-based agency is not legally mandated to carry out such assessments.

"This is a highly political issue and under the current regulation it is not part of the European Asylum Support Office mandate," said Martina Anderson, an Irish MEP with the Left/Gue group, earlier this week at a committee meeting at the European Parliament.

She said it marks a further shift away from guaranteeing the fundamental right to ask for asylum towards one that is more repressive.

"The aim should always be that the fundamental right to asylum is safeguarded and not to be used as a tool for accelerated returns," she said.

Asked to weigh in on the matter, Addou confirmed it was not in their mandate, stressing it was simply an exercise in collecting information to help guide the commission.

"We are gathering neutral and objective information from a variety of sources and we leave it to others to draw their conclusions on this work," he said.

Meanwhile, Easo has also been hit with scandals following allegations of fraud amid resignations of senior staff, including its director-general.

The commission two years ago proposed to overhaul the agency. Both the European parliament and member states then reached a political agreement last year.

The commission then in September announced additional reforms to the agency, confounding MEPs, because it risks undermining the deal.

"I don't really see what the intentions are behind this new proposal," said the parliament's lead negotiator on the file, Hungarian socialist MEP, Peter Niedermueller.

"I have to say that the commission's proposal comes as a surprise to me since not only does it reopen the provisional agreement of the co-legislators but it also changes the text substantially by including giving new tasks to the agency," he said.

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