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18th Jan 2020

UN sets conditions for EU 'disembarkation platforms'

  • The UNHCR and IOM want humane reception centres (Photo: unsmil.unmissions.org)

UN agencies are imposing conditions before agreeing to any new EU plans to prevent boats leaving from north Africa to Italy and Spain.

The move could complicate a scheme being discussed among EU heads of state and leaders at their summit in Brussels on Thursday (28 June) to create so-called 'disembarkation platforms' outside the EU.

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Although still at the conceptual stage, such platforms have gathered traction among EU states as part of a larger bid to further stem migration flows across the Mediterranean Sea.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, wants the platforms outside Europe with the cooperation of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM).

But a joint confidential letter sent by heads of the UNHCR and IOM says any such country, as in north Africa, must first set up reception centres that provide "adequate, safe and dignified reception conditions."

Seen by EUobserver, the three-page letter, billed as a concept paper, was sent Wednesday (27 June) and addressed to Tusk, as well as to the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, and to the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. A copy has also been shared with the chairman of the African Union Commission.

It notes, among other things, that state-operated reception centres in countries outside the EU must provide "adequate, safe, and dignified reception conditions."

This would require addressing the needs of arrivals, access to adequate safe drinking water, sanitation, nutrition, shelter, psychosocial support, and immediate healthcare.

Once those reception centres and conditions are met, then both the UNHCR and the IOM would agree to assist national authorities of those countries to determine the status of people rescued at sea.

Disembarkation risks

This means EU states will have to step up the pace of resettlements, which remain dismal given the UNHCR experience in Niger, where only around 170 have been dispatched towards Europe since the programme's launch late last year.

Niger had earlier threatened to dismantle the programme given the slow resettlement pace, tossing a possible spanner in the current scheme to replicate similar programmes under the 'disembarkation platforms' concept being discussed Thursday at the EU summit.

The UNHCR paper also notes people on the boats should have a "right not to be disembarked in or transferred to a place where there is a risk of persecution, torture, or other serious harm."

That makes Libya an unlikely candidate given its open slave markets and deplorable detention centres, although the UNHCR is close to opening a "transit and departure centre" in Tripoli.

Libya also only grants the UNHCR access to people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, and some from Sudan.

"Beyond those seven nationalities we have no access to refugees from other countries, that has been a growing concern for the UNHCR," said Vincent Cochetel, a UNHCR special envoy for the central Mediterranean, earlier this year at an event in Brussels.

Both agencies are instead pressing to get the bulk of the disembarkations to take place within the EU, in a bid to offload the pressure on Italy, which has since closed its ports to foreign NGO rescue ships.

"For persons disembarked within the EU, following registration and immediate humanitarian assistance, there would be eligibility assessment for possible transfer to another EU member state," notes the paper.

But Tusk's EU summit invitation letter to the heads of states makes no mention of disembarkation schemes within the European Union, creating a possible clash with UN agency demands.

One EU official said should the UNHCR and IOM refuse to help launch the schemes in north Africa, "then European ports will close" to all rescue boats.

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