28th Sep 2023

EU head in 'fortress' mode on immigration

  • "Our legislation [smuggling] is over 20 years old and needs an urgent update," said European commission president Von der Leyen. (Photo: European Parliament)
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The European Commission wants new laws to crack down on migrant smugglers as part of a wider campaign to stop people from crossing the EU's sea and land borders.

"We need new legislation and a new governance structure," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday (13 September) during her state-of-the-union speech in Strasbourg.

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"We need stronger law enforcement, prosecution, and a more prominent role for our agencies — Europol, Eurojust, and Frontex," she added, naming EU joint police, judicial, and border-control bureaus.

Future action is to be discussed at an international anti-smuggling conference, also announced by von der Leyen, amid promises "to put an end to this callous and criminal business."

She was short on detail in her speech, but she aims to use a recent deal with Tunisia's autocratic leader president Kais Saied to stop people leaving by boats towards Italy as template for other African bargains, despite an outcry over Tunisia by human-rights defenders.

And this comes on the back of murky anti-smuggling deals with Morocco and Niger, prior to a military coup overthrowing president Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey in July.

The European Commission declared a war on smugglers already as far back as 2015 and later proposed a renewed action plan against smuggling up until 2025.

But for all the EU's ambitious rhetoric and von der Leyen's four years in its most powerful office, the Mediterranean Sea, where many people attempt to cross, has become one of the deadliest migration routes in the world in recent times.

Human-rights campaigners, including senior officials from UN agencies, have said for years that the EU's containment policies and deal-making with dysfunctional states have only emboldened smugglers into taking ever-increasing risks.

They have called for more legal routes towards Europe instead — an idea that has been largely met with derision by member states.

Resettlement, one of the few legal avenues for refugees to reach the European Union, is being squeezed.

Most EU states have yet to resettle a single refugee in 2023, according to UN data.

So far this year, only 6,000 have managed to be resettled in a European Union that has proven itself capable of hosting 4 million Ukrainian people, who fled Russia's brutal war in the past 18 months.

And for some MEPs in the Strasbourg plenary von der Leyen's annual address indicated no change of approach.

"Today, European asylum policy boils down to make Europe a fortress, and to rely on autocrats, dictators and failed states to keep refugees and migrants away from our shores," Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts and co-chair of the Greens political group said on Wednesday in reaction to her words.

Blind eye

The Ukraine exception to one side, those fleeing other conflicts or persecution find it much harder to seek EU shelter.

Syrians, along with Afghans and Tunisians, represented almost half of all those detected attempting to enter the EU irregularly through the Western Balkans last year.

Syrians lodged more applications for asylum in the EU this year than any other nationality, of which some 95 percent received a protection status.

Others are much more unfortunate, including over 600 people who lost their lives in a shipwreck off the Greek southern coast in June.

Von der Leyen made no mention of the recent tragedy in her speech and Greece has denied all responsibility, despite eyewitness testimony about its alleged role in the mass drowning.

Instead, the EU Commission president praised policies enacted by Bulgaria and Romania for "showcasing best practices on both asylum and returns".

She promised, earlier this year, to supply Bulgaria with drones, radar, and other surveillance equipment to help keep people out.

But the EU Commission has since refused to disclose documents, following a freedom of access request, on what exactly it is financing in Bulgaria and Romania.

"These documents contain information on pricing of services and activities with [sic] are considered country specific proprietary information with competitive value," said Monique Pariat, a senior commission official heading its home affairs department, in an letter of denial to EUobserver.

The lack of transparency comes as EU states continue to impose temporary border controls at the risk of jeopardising the passport-free Schengen area.

It also comes as applications for asylum surpassed 500,000 in the first six months of this year, spooking Bavaria's leader Markus Söder into calling for tighter border control checks throughout the whole of Germany.

The politics of the situation is likely to weigh on von der Leyen, herself a German.

And there was little in her big EU speech on Wednesday to indicate that the Commission would stop turning a blind eye to the well-documented human-rights abuses on Europe's outer rim.

Bulgaria, Croatia, and Hungary have been named as among the worst culprits.

And Croatia stands accused of hosting secret facilities where refugees are being arbitrarily detained and tortured, in an investigation by Dutch-based media LightHouse Reports.

Libyan militia cash in on EU's anti-smuggling strategy

More people in Libya are being inducted into slavery as people-traffickers try to monetise their investment by selling them. A senior UN refugee agency official described it as an unintended side effect of the reduction of migrant boat departures.

Tensions and a murder at Tunisia's departure port for Lampedusa

Sfax, Tunisia's second-largest city, has become a hub for sub-Saharan migrants because it is the closest departure point for Europe, just 190km from the Italian island of Lampedusa. That's created tension with locals, who often view them as adversaries.

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Emily O'Reilly cited the post-pandemic recovery funds, the windfall taxes on energy companies, and the joint purchase of vaccines, as procedures which received limited scrutiny from the national parliaments — as a result of emergency decision-making powers that bypassed parliament.

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