Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Opinion

The Aquarius migrant boat - and the EU policy failings

  • The plight of the Aquarius boat - with 629 migrants onboard - is representative of many hundreds of other such vessels. (Photo: SOS Mediterranee)

Pedro Sanchez, the new prime minister of Spain, deserves real praise for stepping in to give safe harbour to the 629 people who were left adrift in the Mediterranean aboard the Aquarius rescue ship.

Stepping into the breach caused by the stand-off between Italy and Malta signalled exactly the kind of solidarity and responsibility-sharing that is badly needed from EU leaders.

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The precarious situation in which the Aquarius and its passengers found themselves is a consequence of EU member states' failure to manage migration in a strategic and coordinated manner, where member states beyond those receiving new arrivals are part of the solution.

It is also a reflection of member states not looking beyond Europe's shores, to address comprehensively the horrific conditions that drive people to the sea in the first place.

The fact is that people have always, and will always, move across borders – pushed out by conflict and natural disaster, by poverty, or attracted elsewhere by work, study or family ties.

The question is not how to stop migration but how to manage it. And in particular, how to ensure that refugees who are forced to move are given the protection that they are entitled to under international law.

We propose four priorities

First, EU member states should be smarter in the way they manage their borders.

They should address the drivers of migration, for example by accompanying border security measures with far more emphasis on investment in sustainable local livelihoods programmes.

We have seen that EU-backed border security measures within west and north Africa, aimed at preventing migrants getting to Libya, risk disrupting longstanding patterns of local migration upon which people rely for income for their families, and which contribute to the health of local economies.

And they should put human safety at the heart of border management, ensuring that migrants are protected. Recent EU work to disrupt smuggler networks has left regular cross-border and seasonal workers vulnerable, after their journeys were disrupted by the authorities.

Second, and in advance of signing a new UN-led Global Refugee Compact, EU leaders should act – at last - to establish safe and legal pathways to protection in Europe, for refugees fleeing violence and persecution.

The EU-wide refugee resettlement scheme, currently in the final stages of the EU policy-making process but at risk of stalling, would be one such measure. The long-awaited but deadlocked reforms to the 'Dublin Regulation' are crucial to ensure a fairer distribution of responsibility across Europe.

Third, it is time for EU leaders to be honest that many of their economies are reliant on migrant workers, such as those who come from Africa, to do temporary, seasonal jobs.

The remittances these people send home are also vital to so many African families. But existing legislation, such as the EU Seasonal Workers Directive, is not working as intended, and pilot projects proposed in the EU's review of the European agenda on migration are yet to be implemented. Sensible changes in this area would give EU member states more control of migration, not less.

These changes are also a priority for partner governments in Africa, but are frequently overlooked by the EU in favour of border security measures.

Finally, EU member states need to double down on efforts to improve safety and stability in Libya.

The fact is that the majority of people who travel to Libya are in search of work inside Libya: according to recent research, only one in five people who migrate to Libya ultimately attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea.

But the people that the International Rescue Committee met in Italy tell us why they were driven onwards to Europe. In the words of one young man: "Your life is not important anymore."

He expressed utter horror when he described how women are treated. "If you are a woman, they will do everything to you. They will beat you, they will rape you, they will molest you."

In particular, the arbitrary detention of migrants in terrible conditions, including children, cannot continue.

The significant numbers of people transferred out of the detention centres in recent months through the voluntary humanitarian return programme and the emergency transit mechanism are, of course, positive but much more remains to be done.

More pledges from EU member states to support the emergency transit mechanism are urgently needed, and the slow, cumbersome process must be speeded up.

There are no simple solutions and ultimately the only way to bring peace to Libya, and to reduce the likelihood of migrants travelling onwards to Europe, is through the political process.

With over 1.1 million people in need and over a thousand militias vying for territory, every effort must be made to find a peaceful resolution to this crisis.

We welcome the recent agreement by all Libyan parties to work, together with the UN, towards parliamentary elections in December.

We urge EU member states to come together to build on this momentum, in a joint diplomatic strategy to drive positive change in Libya – first by ensuring the UN moves quickly to host an inclusive political conference to pave the way for UN-backed elections including ensuring the necessary technical, legislative, political and security conditions are in place.

On board the Aquarius are more than one hundred children travelling without their parents, and seven pregnant women. If EU leaders fail to be strategic and coordinated in their migration and foreign policy, these are the people who suffer the consequences.

Imogen Sudbery is head of Brussels office at the International Rescue Committee

Exclusive

Basque region offers to host rescued Aquarius migrants

The Basque government have offered to host some of the refugees rescued by the Aquarius humanitarian ship that will dock in Valencia. "That is the commitment of the Basque country," said it leader Inigo Ukrullu.

Interview

Spanish NGO boat bosses face jail for rescuing Libya refugees

Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms had its rescue boat seized by Italian authorities in Sicily earlier this month. Three employees have been accused of migrant trafficking and face up to 15 years in jail and huge fines.

Italy seizes NGO boat and starts Libyan mission

Italian authorities impounded a German NGO's rescue boat as a "preventive" measure, and has moved its boats to Libyan waters to help the local coastguard in turning back migrant boats.

Analysis

Aquarius, Dublin: Is EU losing grip on asylum reform?

The standoff over the rescue boat, which is now heading to Spain, is part of a wider politically toxic narrative against refugees and migrants and a symptom of EU failures to reform asylum laws.

Belgian mayor invites Orban to migrant-diverse town

Winner of 'World's Best Mayor', Mechelen's Bart Somers has invited Hungary's PM to visit. "You know, in the whole of Hungary with 10million inhabitants, they have less Muslims than we have in a small city of 90,000," he told EUobserver.

EU summit: migrants get a 'vote' too

Non-citizens from Nigeria to Afghanistan get a binding 'vote' on whatever the EU's internal debates submit to them. They will vote with their feet on whether to keep trying their luck when faced with a new system.

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