• Monday, Dec 16, 2019
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Matters coming to a head

  • Published at 12:24 am July 15th, 2018
Where will Syrian refugees go? REUTERS

EU leaders may welcome a migration deal, but questions remain

his whole issue of migration and illegal migration has assumed importance because of what is happening in different parts of the world due to war, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism. Over the past few years, we have watched with horror the dire effects of civil war in Sudan and other parts of Africa, in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and in Yemen. 

The case of displacement of more than 1 million Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh because of ethnic cleansing has affected the stability of our region.

Recently, matters came to a head with the arrival of a few hundred refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from the shores of Libya in the second and third weeks of June. 

International attention has also been drawn to this problem through the US’s “zero tolerance” approach with regard to migrants trying to enter that country from Mexico. There has also been the refusal of Jordan and Lebanon to take in any more refugees trying to enter these countries from war-affected Syria. Jordan already has 1.4 million refugees in various camps near the border. 

The EU, facing Brexit, has also been forced to deal seriously with the migration problem. The emergence of IS, the continuing civil war in Syria, the worries created through instability in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are casting a long shadow on the EU. 

The EU Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker has in this context warned: “The fragility of the EU is increasing, and the cracks are growing in size.” The issue of migration is pitting southern Europe against the north. Italy and Greece are smouldering with resentment at having been left alone to deal with migrant arrivals. Meanwhile, northern countries are blaming the south for not patrolling their Mediterranean borders better and for having, at least in the past, enabled migrants to “slip away” northwards towards richer Germany, Austria, and Sweden.

Analysts have noted that the number of migrants arriving illegally in Europe may be down, but so is voter tolerance of the problem. The rise and rise across the EU of tough-on-immigration politicians has emboldened hardliners such as Hungary’s Victor Orban and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz (who will be taking over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU from July) who both consider that migration deserves top priority. 

Angela Merkel arrived recently in Brussels for the EU meeting convened in the last week of June and pushed for compromise on burden-sharing and prevention. Her effort was different from the growing number of EU leaders pushing single-mindedly on the migrant deterrence button. It is also clear that Merkel has been weakened at home by her previous open-door migrant policy. 

Formerly viewed as politically untouchable, the German chancellor has now been given an ultimatum by her own interior minister, who has threatened her with helping to find “a workable pan-European solution to stop irregular migrants bleeding into Germany.” It has also been suggested that if this fails, then, the Interior Ministry will unilaterally slam Germany’s borders shut.

In true EU style, once gathered round the table in Brussels, at the end of June, there was undoubtedly an effort to create emphasis on what unites rather than divides member countries.

After extensive negotiations which went into the early hours of the morning, EU leaders have apparently found some common ground and least common denominators with regard to the burden of resettling refugees shared more widely among member states.

Some of the relevant sections of the deal are as follows.

(a) The European Council reconfirms that a precondition for a functioning EU policy relies on a comprehensive approach to migration, which combines more effective control of the EU’s external borders, increased external action and internal aspects, in line with EU principles and values. 

(b) The European Council is determined to continue and reinforce this policy to prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015, and to further stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes. In this regard, intensive efforts would be undertaken to stop smugglers operating out of Libya. It will also not only step up its support for the Sahel region, the Libyan Coastguard, coastal and Southern communities, but help to create humane reception conditions, voluntary humanitarian returns, and cooperation with other countries of origin and transit, as well as voluntary resettlement. 

(c) Similarly, on the Eastern Mediterranean route, additional efforts will be taken to prevent new crossings from Turkey and bring the flows to a halt. Cooperation with, and support for, partners in the Western Balkans region will also remain key to exchange information on migratory flows, prevent illegal migration, increase the capacities for border protection, and improve return and readmission procedures.  The European Council has also stressed on the concept of regional disembarkation platforms, in close cooperation with relevant third countries as well as UNHCR and IOM. 

(d) The European Council has also agreed on launching the second tranche of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey and at the same time on transferring 500 million euro from the 11th EDF reserve to the EU Trust Fund for Africa. Member states have also been called upon to contribute further to the EU Trust Fund for Africa with a view to its replenishment. This approach has been undertaken to tackle the migration problem at its core through substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent in the areas of education, health, infrastructure, innovation, good governance, and women’s empowerment. 

(e) It has also been reiterated that secondary movements of asylum seekers between member states risk jeopardizing the integrity of the Common European Asylum System and the Schengen acquis. Member states should take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures to counter such movements, and to closely cooperate amongst each other to that end. Despite EU leaders’ broad welcome for the migration deal, many questions however remain unanswered. 

The council has agreed to work closely with the UN migration agency, the IOM, and UN refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as relevant third countries to explore the proposal for “regional disembarkation platforms” where migrants would be assessed before they get close to setting off for Europe by sea. 

Nevertheless, it is not yet clear whether Libya and other North African nations will be willing or capable of setting up “regional disembarkation platforms” for migrants as proposed by the EU. The IOM and UNHCR have said that they “stand ready to support a common approach, and call on all countries in the Mediterranean region to come together to implement a responsible disembarkation mechanism.”

One will need to wait and see what happens. Nothing is certain right now.

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]