Migration through the Mediterranean : which European responses ?
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"More solidarity and a greater political courage are needed to put an end to the tragic situation in the Mediterranean and to improve the management of asylum in Europe »Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean situation
In June, UNHCR and IOM proposed the creation of a “predictable disembarkation mechanism”, but there’s been very little progress. Is there still hope for this mechanism to be set up?
UNHCR supports the implementation of a “predictable disembarkation mechanism” on both sides of the Mediterranean. In June, the European Council proposed the creation of controlled centres within the European Union and disembarkation platforms in North Africa. This proposal was not very useful as these North African countries consider that Europe is simply trying to shift responsibility to them. We did see, however, that 11 EU Member States plus Albania and Montenegro committed to taking in a number of refugees who disembarked in Malta, Italy and Spain. This is a good start towards real cooperation. For North Africa (with the exception of Libya), however, we really should have looked to see what they already had in place: there are already working bases in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. These mechanisms are still in their infancy, but we must build on them and ensure that there are fully functioning asylum and migration management systems to support them.
Asylum procedures in Europe should be modified so as to include the significant number of people arriving on the continent for whom these procedures are not relevant. I recently visited the Pozzallo hotspot in Italy, where I had the chance to talk to young Gambians, Ivoirians and Senegalese whose desire to migrate to Europe was clearly not motivated by a need for asylum. Do we really need to force these people into a four-year procedure, at the end of which they’ll be forced to join the existing irregular population already in Europe? Is it not possible to manage people a little better at their point of arrival? It is essential that we build on these pilot models for legal migration, such as the European blue card or other forms of circular migration, as is the case in Canada, and a more efficient return policy.
The European Union wishes to negotiate a similar agreement with Egypt as the one signed with Turkey in 2016. What’s your take on this?
UNHCR isn’t opposed to this rapprochement, as long as it ends in a balanced partnership based on mutual obligations – both for Europe and Egypt – (it should not concern the Egyptians only) and as long as it addresses the gaps in the current Egyptian system in terms of asylum and migration management. UNHCR has been operational in the country since 1954, but there is no legislation whatsoever concerning asylum. European countries say that Egypt is a good model, with no illegal sea crossings from the Egyptian coast. However, UNHCR believes that some 19% of the people arriving in Italy from Libya actually passed through Egypt en route. Support from the international community is ebbing, and UNHCR is being forced to downsize all of its operations in Egypt. This has resulted in a more precarious situation for the refugee population there, an increase in the number of those arriving across the Sudan, a sharp decrease of refugee resettlement efforts, and a response from the international community which is well below what we should expect, given the talk of greater cooperation with the country. We believe that real improvement in asylum and migration management is possible in Egypt.
In your opinion, what could we do to encourage States to do their bit and fulfil their international commitments? How could we reconcile the different views and perspectives, in particular between the Višegrad countries and the rest of the EU?
Quite simply, I believe the European policies which work best are those which include the principle of solidarity. We talk about a common agricultural and transport policy, with region-wide policies that consist of transferring resources and allocating a communal budget for disadvantaged zones. This mechanism could well apply to asylum policy too, and could be an effective approach to use with central European countries. UNHCR remains circumspect about the idea of “mandatory solidarity”, which allows each State to determine their level and form of solidarity. It should not be “flexible”, but rather very clear and foreseeable. UNHCR hopes that the Višegrad countries will gradually join the European consensus on solidarity when applied to asylum related issues. Most of these countries already have labour movement agreements with North Korea, Vietnam and Laos, which bring several thousand migrant workers onto their territory every year. Their talk of a mono-ethnic, mono-religious and purely national society does not seem to always fit in practice their need for legal immigration.
The situation in Libya has become dire for migrants, due to conditions in detention centres and the risks of human trafficking. Could cooperation with the African countries of origin be a workable solution to reduce the number of migrants leaving for Libya?
There are already various initiatives in place with African countries as part of the December 2015 Valletta agreements, among others. These address the underlying causes of irregular migration and the forced movement of populations. Some of these causes are economic in nature and require real commitments towards local development; as such, we can’t say that there is any real reticence by Europe to work with the countries of origin. Additionally, the Valletta agreements also include cooperation with countries of first arrival, or “transit” countries. Unfortunately, progress and commitments in this regard have been lacking, with the exception of Niger. We need to implement programmes which can keep refugees where they are, offering stability and decent living conditions. UNHCR has made it clear that we must do everything in our power to – responsibly and credibly – prevent people going to Libya. This must cover all areas, from assistance and legal pathways to migration to resettlement and family reunification.
Does UNHCR consider that the European Parliament LIBE (civil liberties, justice and internal affairs) Committee’s proposal, concerning the implementation of a European humanitarian visa, could be a real step towards resolving the situation in the Mediterranean?
Absolutely. In the past, however, the few countries which have actually used this solution to guarantee effective protection for migrants in Europe were overwhelmed by the number of applications, leading them to end their experiment. All of the possible legal pathways must be open and functional, such as resettlement, an area in which Europe is not doing enough, with only 10,000 resettlements in 2017. The European Directive on family reunification includes this right for close family members of refugees. One of the first decisions made by some European states in 2015 was to make it more difficult to access family reunification. As a result, European communities have found themselves with a lot more single men. People are unhappy as large numbers of single men stoke fear and apprehension within communities, but nothing is done to allow their families to join them. These men have no desire to remain on their own, and want to bring their families over. Unfortunately, it is now up to human traffickers to facilitate family reunification. To resolve this situation, we must recreate the right conditions for family reunification which can be implemented quickly and avoid the need for families to take huge risks as they try to join their spouse in Europe.