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6th Dec 2019

EU promotes 'Egypt model' to reduce migrant numbers

  • Cairo. Egypt currently hosts over 211,000 refugees, of whom around 123,000 are Syrian, in addition to its own fast-rising population of 90m (Photo: euobserver)

The EU wants to deepen relations with Egypt because few people managed to take boats from there to Europe, according to an EU source in Brussels on Tuesday (18 September) - who praised the authoritarian government in Cairo for virtually sealing its shores to refugees and migrants.

"This is a partner which is taking its responsibility seriously, a partner we can work with in the context of migration even more," he told reporters.

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The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says 77 Egyptian nationals were reported to have left Libya this year to reach Greece, as of the end of April. Another 130 Egyptians left for Italy from Libya as of the end of June.

The EU wants to see similarly low figures from all north African states - in an effort to further curb an already sharp decline of overall arrivals in Italy, Greece and Spain.

Although fewer refugees and migrants are landing on European shores compared to 2017, the risk of death has since multiplied given the crackdown on NGO charity boats operating near Libya.

Tunisia is now considered the main point of departure from northern Africa to Italy, given the drop of people leaving from Libya. Many of the departees are Tunisians.

No migration decision expected at Salzburg

EU council president Donald Tusk, along with Austria's chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country holds the rotating presidency, have put Egypt on this Wednesday's agenda at the informal gathering of all 28 EU heads of state and government in Salzburg.

Tusk, in his invitation letter to the heads of state, said Egypt needs to discussed.

"It is worth recalling that the Egyptian authorities have made the fight against smuggling and trafficking their priority. As a result there have been no irregular departures from Egypt to Europe this year," he said.

Both Tusk and Kurz are now calling for an EU-Arab League summit sometime in early 2019, following a joint visit to Cairo.

Yet Egypt, under strongman president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, since 2014 has been targeting journalists, peaceful activists, and restricting online speech under the guise of fighting terrorism.

It is also home to well over 100,000 Syrian refugees who require a permit to work. They have no rights to private property, face crippling poverty with many concentrated in overcrowded ghettos in the north of the country.

Egypt's own population of over 90 million is also on the rise, with some 800,000 young people every year entering a market with few real job prospects.

The Tusk comments on Egypt follow a rise in tensions among EU states given outstanding issues over how to divide up those that do arrive, or make the attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

Disembarkation and Dublin

An EU summit in June concluded with vague plans, hatched by the IOM and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to get EU states and countries rimming the Mediterranean coast to better coordinate search and rescue.

Billed as 'disembarkation arrangements' by the European Commission and as 'disembarkation platforms' by the Council (representing member states), the details behind the proposal remain opaque.

Not a single north African state has expressed any public support.

The concept also entails offloading people at centres in EU states and shuffling them through a rapid asylum process that may resemble so-called hotspots in Greece and Italy.

According to Raphael Shilhav, Oxfam's policy advisor on migration, "Th[is] will duplicate all the failures of the hotspots."

He told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday such plans are broadly based on "assumption and hopes", without any real analysis or facts to support the proposals.

Just under 11,000 people are stuck at the Moria hotspot on the Greek island of Lesbos, designed to accommodate just 3,000. The island has only one doctor to screen all new arrivals amid reports of a spike of suicide attempts.

The disembarkation debacle gained traction over the summer in part because Italy's hard-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, refused to allow NGOs and the Italian coastguard to offload in Italy migrants rescued at sea.

At a joint press conference last week in Vienna with Austria's far-right interior minister Herbert Kickl, both men said they want asylum claims to be processed at sea on boats.

That idea is unlikely to get much attention by leaders in Salzburg on Wednesday as Italy's prime minister instead presses his case to allow an EU naval operation, known as Sophia, to disembark those rescued at sea at other member state ports.

Meanwhile, internal asylum reforms like the 'Dublin regulation' remain blocked at the council.

Kurz will brief leaders on Wednesday on Dublin following Austrian EU presidency bilateral talks with all EU states over the summer.

"After those bilaterals, there was no breakthrough in the talks on Dublin," said an EU source.

This article was updated at 16:30 on 24 September 2018 to reflect up-to-date IOM departure figures of Egyptian nationals towards Greece and Italy from Libya.

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