Leila Nezirevic

The European Commission earlier this month handed over search and rescue boats to the Libyan Coast Guard, promising four additional vessels to help prevent migrants and asylum seekers from fleeing to Europe.

But according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), doing so is a further reflection of the EU giving up its “primary responsibility of search and rescue in the Mediterranean,” as criticism mounts on the bloc for its increasing indifference in the plight of hundreds trying to cross into Europe fleeing violence and poverty.

Thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have died while attempting to reach Europe from North Africa, mostly Libya.

According to Hanan Salah, associate director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at HRW, an estimated total of more than 24,600 people intercepted in the Mediterranean were forced back to Libya in 2022, while “a staggering 25,313 at least have died in the Mediterranean since 2014.”

Bram Frouws, director of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), told Anadolu that the European asylum system and the whole approach to migration is in “poor shape.”

He argued that there is a lack of solidarity between countries and no proper agreements about the relocation of asylum seekers across the European continent.

In his opinion, we are witnessing “double standards” in the way European countries are dealing with the reception of Ukrainian refugees versus asylum seekers and migrants from any other countries around the world.

“We see European Union and European countries sort of constantly crossing a line of morality and humanity,” he said.

Far-right influence

Since facing a refugee crisis in 2015, the EU is still grappling with how to reform its asylum system at a time when migrant entries are once again on the rise, said Frouws.

Reaching an agreement between the EU’s 27 member countries has become more difficult with the growing influence of the far right in the politics of some of its member states.

For instance, Sweden, the current holder of the EU presidency, is reliant on the far-right Sweden Democrats, who now have a strong influence on the new right-wing coalition government.

Frouws pointed out that this coalition was stepping up the restrictive approach introduced under the previous Swedish government after large numbers of asylum seekers came to Sweden in 2015 and 2016.

Critics say the Swedish EU presidency is likely to concentrate on boosting the number of irregular migrants sent back to their countries of origin.

Frouws warned that the political setup in Sweden, their approach towards reducing migration and reducing the number of asylum seekers coming to Sweden or the EU in general would slow down any progress in terms of the bloc’s asylum system.

“I really don’t think we should have high hopes of progress during the Swedish presidency,” he said.

EU disagreement

Under the current EU law on asylum claims, known as the Dublin Regulation, irregular migrants and asylum seekers are the responsibility of the EU country where they first enter.

In 2016, the European Commission presented a proposal for a revision of the regulation as part of a package of proposals on the Common European Asylum System, but the proposed reform has since been stalled.

“I think it’s quite clear that the system doesn’t work at the moment. It’s an unfair system. It’s unfair towards the countries that are positioned on Europe’s external borders.

“But at the same time, there seems to be little incentive with those countries that are conveniently located much further away from Europe’s external borders to reform this system,” said Frouws.

In his opinion, this is very much the reason why these discussions on the reform of the Dublin arrangements have been “stuck” for such a long time.

He further argued that the EU needed an asylum system that promotes more equal responsibility across Europe.

There seems to have been a split within the EU as Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta back the proposed reform that would see asylum seekers relocated across the bloc, but other countries such as Hungary, Poland, and the Netherlands are opposing it.

Frouws said a pan-European compromise was unlikely anytime soon when it comes to the disagreements among member states over the terms of the reform.

Developing a coalition of willing leaders who show the courage to make some progress on this issue of relocation and setting a good example in hope that the other European countries will follow is the way forward, he added.

Türkiye, EU cooperation ‘crucial’

Anitta Hipper, the European Commission’s spokesperson on home affairs, told Anadolu that the EU’s response to the war in Ukraine shows what is possible “when the EU is united.”

“If we can achieve these results in times of crisis, we can also equip ourselves to manage migration in normal times; to provide legal pathways and protection for people in need, prevent irregular migration and to return people without the right to stay in the EU to their countries of origin,” she added.   

However, the cooperation between EU member states and non-EU countries is also “crucial” on the issue of migration, Frouws said, stressing that it was the only way to make migration work.

Working with both destination states and countries of origin on the issue of returns “remains so much part of the gridlock … I think that’s sort of blocking progress towards a better way of dealing with migration,” he added.

Currently, if a country does not cooperate with the return of failed asylum seekers, the EU threatens to cut foreign aid by a certain percentage, “which is not really serious. It’s not a good way of working together, and it won’t have much impact,” said Frouws.

The cooperation between Türkiye and the EU has always been “crucial,” but even more so now after the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, he added.

“Türkiye has been generously hosting a very large number of Syrian refugees” and “I think to a large extent has proven a trustworthy partner to the European Union,” Frouws continued, adding it is very much so Europe’s turn now “to show solidarity.”

He insisted that the bloc should support Ankara after the recent massive earthquakes in terms of hosting refugees in the same way it supported Ukraine.

“What we saw after the war in Ukraine started is that almost all European member states said this war is happening to our neighbor. Ukraine is very much part of Europe,” meaning that the refugees will be hosted in Europe. But “Türkiye is as much a next-door neighbor as Ukraine is,” said Frouws.

He also stressed that Europe must bear this in mind if it wants to continue to be able to count on Türkiye.

Currently, he said, there is a lot of anxiety in Europe that the events from 2015 and 2016, when a large number of people from the Middle east, particularly Syria, crossed through Türkiye into the EU, could repeat itself.

“So, I’m sure this relation between Türkiye and the EU is very much on top of the political agendas at the moment,” said Frouws.

Action plans

In November and December 2022, the European Commission published two action plans, on the Central Mediterranean and the Western Balkans.

According to the EU, the action plans are operational measures to address the immediate and ongoing challenges along the Central Mediterranean and Western Balkan migration routes.

Hipper said the non-alignment of a visa-free regime with the EU’s visa policy contributes to an increasing number of people that arrive directly by air to Western Balkan countries and move onward to the EU.

“The action plans set out a series of measures to reinforce the EU’s support to member states facing increased migratory pressure along the two routes.

“Close cooperation with countries of origin and transit is essential to address these shared migratory challenges,” said Hipper.

Frouws pointed out that the action plans do not signal any change and overall were a “pretty disappointing outcome.”

Hipper argued that the action plans complement the ongoing work targeting other key migratory routes to Europe and may act as a model to develop similar plans addressing the specificities of other migratory routes.

“Agreement on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum is of course as urgent as ever,” she said.

For his part, Frouws warned that under the current law, there were many risks for refugees, even when they have set foot inside Europe, around a lack of access to housing and protection, as well as discrimination and vulnerability to human trafficking.

According to him, refugees face these risks because the laws are either insufficient or not adequately implemented.

Despite a lot of good agreements and excellent objectives out there, not all states stick to them, and “it’s the same with the whole body of international human rights law,” said Frouws.

“So instead of changing laws or creating new laws, quite often, what would be sufficient is actually sticking to the laws and adhering to the laws that we already have,” he added.

In the latest EU summit held on Feb. 10, heads of EU states discussed migration as a key agenda, and here it was evident that the European Commission is now crossing the line towards directly financing infrastructure to protect European Europe’s external borders, and this is really “worrying.”

“I think this is the first step towards actually directly financing the construction of walls and fences at Europe’s external borders.

“And I think that’s really not the way to go for Europe. It’s not what Europe should signal to the rest of the world,” said Frouws, adding that even a million asylum claims, or 160,000 people arriving irregularly on Europe’s borders, should be manageable.

“This is a very rich continent” with more than 500 million people, with some of the richest countries of the world, he said.

Europe, he said, should stop panicking around these numbers and actually show a little bit of confidence, certainty and courage “because Europe can handle this, I would say,” said Frouws.


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