Tuesday

23rd Jan 2018

EU seeks to shut down Libya sea route

  • Tusk (r) says EU leaders vowed to help Italy stem flows from Libya. (Photo: European Union)

EU leaders at a summit in Brussels still have no solution to an internal asylum stalemate, opting instead to focus their attention on stopping people from leaving for Europe.

On Thursday (19 October), European Council president Donald Tusk agreed to offer Italy more help with Libya in shutting down the migrant sea route by stepping up financial contributions to a special fund for northern Africa.

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"We have a real chance of closing the Central Mediterranean route," he said, expecting results within the next few weeks.

The European Commission has long complained that EU member states are lagging behind in shoring up the trust fund, launched last year, with contributions that also cover the Sahel region, Lake Chad and the Horn of Africa.

The Commission has so far put in €2.9 billion, while EU states have offered €175 million in the so-called EU trust fund for Africa. Of that, Italy gave some €92 million, far more than any other EU state.

"We are reaching our limits to this emergency trust fund for Africa," said Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

Flows from Libya have reduced by some 70 percent since last year. But the route across the Mediterranean is also far more deadly.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates at least one in 50 die in the attempt, compared to one in 90 one year ago, as the EU-trained Libyan coastguard become more aggressive in their tactics against NGO rescue boats.

In August, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and Germany's Sea Eye suspended rescue operations given the hostility met by Libyan guards.

The EU's naval force Sophia has also been sinking boats, forcing people onto less seaworthy rubber dinghies, amid moves by EU states to ban their sale to Libya.

Oxfam International's deputy director, Natalia Alonso, said the drop in arrivals to Europe "only means people in need of help are stuck in Libya, without any improvement of their situation."

Greece, which is often touted as a success in terms of flows, has also seen over 5,000 arrive on the islands from Turkey last month alone.

Yet conditions remain deplorable on the ground in the lead up to the winter months, with NGOs fearing a 2016 repeat when people awoke to deep snow at the Moria camp on Lesbos island. Temperatures at the time had plummeted to -18 degrees Celsius.

But EU leaders insist the deal is working, noting that some €883 million has been dispersed for refugee projects inside Turkey as of this month and that around 10,000 Syrians have been resettled from the country.

In parallel, misgivings about Turkey's government crackdown on journalists, human rights activists and others, have done little to curtail Ankara.

Dublin asylum reforms

Efforts to revamp the EU's Dublin regulation, an EU law that determines which member state is responsible for processing an asylum claim, has been broadly sidelined.

Tusk on Thursday announced plans to reach a consensus in the first half of 2018. Leaders are set to discuss the issue again in December.

Tusk appeared to underline its political importance in terms of trying to keep dissenting EU states from splintering the Union.

"As long as I am here, I will be the guardian of European unity," he said.

But missed deadlines and lofty announcements have often peppered the debate surrounding Dublin reforms, among the most tricky issues plaguing EU leaders.

Last year, they imposed a deadline for the previous EU presidency under Malta to reach an agreement by June of this year.

It was a near impossible task. Ultimately, Malta failed given the contentious debates and on-going debates on solidarity and responsibility.

When EU leaders met in June again, the summit conclusions dropped any discussions of deadlines, opting instead to repeat a mantra of finding a "common solution."

The current Estonian presidency has instead found itself at an impasse.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia remain opposed to any burden sharing of asylum seekers and have balked on relocating any from Greece or Italy.

Greece, Cyprus, and Spain oppose speeding up the talks without first getting concessions elsewhere, noted one EU diplomat.

Another also noted Dublin reforms may be resolved either in May or June of next year.

"That's the moment when we should take off the table the issue of Dublin reform - one of biggest risks to unity," he said.

The issue has triggered the rise of internal border checks throughout the passport free Schengen area, despite the closure of the Western Balkan route.

It has also seen mainstream parties in Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere, borrow heavily from the steady anti-immigration rhetoric of the far-right.

Austria's new 31-year old upcoming chancellor Sebastian Kurz managed to boost his voter poll by broadly aligning his immigration stance with that of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO).

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The EU is reforming a number of internal asylum laws, but lack of staff, politics, and the sheer complexity of the bills means deadlines - like those announced by EU council chief Tusk - are likely to come and go.

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UN criticises EU policy in Libya as 'inhuman'

The EU's policy of helping the Libyan coast guard to return people plucked from the sea is "inhuman", says the UN's human rights chief, given that most end up in dire conditions.

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