EU states push external migrant centers despite IOM doubts

EU heads of state or government meet in Brussels to discuss the most pressing policy priorities for the European Union, including how to press ahead with the EU’s common asylum system. Photo by: European Union

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders emerged from marathon talks early Friday with an agreement to explore new methods to stem irregular migration and take cooperation with Africa “to a new level.” But the International Organization for Migration expressed serious reservations about the implications of some parts of the plan in a letter obtained by Devex, sent to the European Council president in advance of the meeting.

The plans include creating “controlled centers” inside the bloc to assess the claims of migrants saved while trying to enter the EU, and developing the concept of “regional disembarkment platforms” outside the bloc, likely in North Africa, where people's applications to enter the EU could be processed. The leaders also agreed to transfer €500 million ($582.15 million) to the EU Trust Fund for Africa, the controversial aid instrument designed to address the root causes of migration, which is financed through the European Development Fund with money from outside the official EU budget.

The idea of disembarkment platforms was among the most controversial at the summit, with Delphine Moralis, secretary general of NGO Terre des Hommes, warning Friday that these “could put children and other migrants in grave danger.”

Oxfam’s Policy Advisor on Migration Raphael Shilhav said EU governments were still trying to “offload their responsibilities onto poorer countries outside the EU.” Shilhav said the creation of “even more de facto detention centers, a measure that has evidently failed with the so-called ‘hotspot’ in Greece and Italy ... is a recipe for failure, and directly threatens the rights of women, men, and children on the move.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated it would be important to develop the platforms in consultation with the United Nations refugee agency and IOM. The summit conclusions added that “such platforms should operate [by] distinguishing individual situations, in full respect of international law and without creating a pull factor.”

William Lacy Swing, director general of IOM, wrote to EC President Donald Tusk ahead of the summit, outlining his agency’s reaction to the idea. “We are of the view that priority should be given to the establishment of predictable processing mechanisms, including disembarkation platforms, on EU soil,” Swing wrote in a draft of the letter seen by Devex, which an IOM spokesperson said the organization stands behind. “Such schemes are complex undertakings and have proven exceedingly hard to manage and sustain in the long term, particularly when they are situated in third countries. Irrespective of the location of the processing centres, the long-term detention of large numbers of arrivals would be self-defeating.”

Swing wrote that one of the lessons from the previous use of hotspots is “the need for adequate rights-based and protection-sensitive reception, which includes universal registration and identification of all arrivals.” He added that while not all migrants and asylum seekers may qualify for indefinite international protection, a “significant number” may be in need of a temporary stay in host countries, including unaccompanied children and people who have suffered violence, exploitation, and abuse.

“We also need to think about the rights and the future of people who aren’t identified as refugees,” Oxfam’s Shilhav told Devex. “The fact that they wouldn’t be relocated or resettled doesn’t mean that they disappear.”

Earlier this month, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, said no African country had yet agreed to host one of the regional centers. The Guardian quoted Tahar Cherif, the Tunisian ambassador to the EU, saying: “The proposal was put to the head of our government a few months ago during a visit to Germany, it was also asked by Italy, and the answer is clear: No! … We have neither the capacity nor the means to organise these detention centres.”

The summit follows media reports this week of migrants being rounded up and abandoned by Algerian security forces in the Sahara desert, with many dying on the journey back to the smuggling hub of Agadez, in Niger.

An EU official told reporters Wednesday it was too early to say what the regional platforms would look like. “When we talk about disembarkment platforms, we are not talking about camps,” he said. “[The] key concern of the third countries [is] that Europeans want to build camps on their soil. This is not the objective here. The real objective here is to break the smugglers’ model.”

“Once you do so, you don’t need to have big camps,” the official added, “because then ships are not going to embark and people are not going to pay the smugglers to embark on such a journey, which results in the loss of life in too many instances.”

The official reiterated the EU’s intention to work with IOM and UNHCR, as well as unnamed third countries. “It’s true that it is not always easy, particularly with IOM at this stage,” he said. However, he blamed the EU’s difficulties with IOM on its upcoming leadership election, which is set to see a successor to Lacy Swing chosen on Friday. “We are determined to work together and we hope it will be possible,” the official said.

The summit brought together the newly elected populist government in Italy, which believes it is shouldering too much of the burden of new arrivals in Europe, and Merkel, who is under pressure from her coalition partner and Bavarian sister party to take a harder line on migrants registering in one EU country and then moving through others. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte initially blocked decisions on any topic until his concerns about migration, including his desire to see regional processing centers outside the EU, were addressed.

However, in a joint press release Friday, IOM and UNHCR pointed out that numbers of arrivals are already far lower than in previous years: About 40,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea this year, almost six times less than during the same period last year.

The organizations proposed to leaders that: “The determination of places of disembarkation ... in EU territory and potentially elsewhere should be based on a geographic distribution with due consideration for available capacities in such identified centres, and in a manner that ensures respect for human rights, including respect for the safety and dignity of all people on the move, and the principle of non-refoulement.”

Tusk said Thursday, ahead of the meeting, that the alternative to disembarkment platforms would be “a chaotically advancing closure of borders, also within the EU, as well as growing conflicts among EU member states. Some may think I am too tough in my proposals on migration. But trust me, if we don't agree on them, then you will see some really tough proposals from some really tough guys.”

In their conclusions, the leaders argued that “tackling the migration problem at its core requires a partnership with Africa aiming at a substantial socioeconomic transformation of the African continent, building upon the principles and objectives as defined by the African countries in their Agenda 2063.”

“This will not only require increased development funding but also steps toward creating a new framework enabling a substantial increase of private investment from both Africans and Europeans,” they said. “Particular focus should be laid on education, health, infrastructure, innovation, good governance, and women's empowerment. Africa is our neighbor ... Cooperation between the European Union and the African Union is an important element of our relationship. The European Council calls for further developing and promoting it.”

Speaking to reporters, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, added: “The European Union and the member states are already now investing more or less €20 billion every year in Africa, so we’re talking about a sort of Marshall Plan already in place. What we need now is more or less €1 billion more, which is not that big [an amount] money, to complete the projects that are already in the pipeline.”

Half of that will come from the EC and half from EU member states, she said, adding that projects under the EU Trust Fund for Africa “have been producing results so far, but obviously we need to sustain them overtime to consolidate these results in a [way that is] sustainable, humane, and respectful of human rights.” The trust fund programs have been criticized by some NGOs for diverting aid funds from the primary goal of poverty eradication, and blurring the line between aid and security.

Leaders also called for “flexible instruments, allowing for fast disbursement, to combat illegal migration” under the EU’s budget for the period 2021-2027, currently being negotiated.

The EU official said Wednesday that such resources should not replace development assistance. “We all know that development assistance for Africa in that context is necessary to address the root causes of migration,” he said, alluding to the EU’s argument that poverty is a driver of migration. “But we need to have [a] more flexible instrument, which is managed by people who deal with migration.”

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.