By Sherif Elsayed-Ali, deputy director of global issues at Amnesty International
As the summer “boat season” approaches, with a surge in migrants, asylum seekers and refugees making the perilous sea crossing from north Africa to the European Union, the authorities are scrambling to prevent further tragedy off Europe’s shores. Too often, we have seen how this journey ends with hundreds of deaths at sea amid a series of horrific shipwrecks.
But the reported proposal to establish processing centres in North Africa for migrants and refugees bound for the EU is poorly conceived at best. Similar proposals were made in 2003. It was a bad idea then; it’s a bad idea now.
In theory, it seems reasonable that processing centres in neighbouring countries could help migrants and refugees to attempt to gain legal entry to the EU instead of embarking on this dangerous journey. In practice, however, the centres will probably result in further human rights violations.
Amnesty International and others have documented a pattern of human rights abuses against migrants and refugees in countries including Egypt and Libya, both touted as possible locations for the processing centres. Government agencies, but also in some cases armed groups and criminal gangs, have targeted migrants, asylum seekers and refugees with impunity. This has been taking place alongside EU cooperation on migration control with these countries.
In Libya migrants, asylum seekers and refugees have been subjected to indefinite detention in insanitary “holding centres”, where many have been exploited and tortured. Little has changed since Gaddafi’s rule in terms of the treatment meted out by the authorities. The country is gripped by violence, the rule of law is fragile, and power is dispersed among rival armed groups, militias and a very weak central government.
Meanwhile in Egypt there has been a pattern of arbitrary detention of refugees and deportations of Syrian refugees to other countries, including back to conflict-stricken Syria. And for years traffickers have detained, tortured and killed migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Sinai with impunity.
Questions abound. How would the processing centres stem the flow of people to the EU? Will they be closed detention centres? Who will run them? What will happen to people there? How will the EU ensure that the facilities do not become yet another version of existing abusive detention centres?
We can look at the current and recent practice of EU member states to picture the likely scenario. Migrants and refugees – including children and families – would be rounded up and taken to the processing centres. How will the EU ensure, in Libya for example, that they will not be ill treated? Or will it simply continue cooperating with these countries despite human rights violations being carried out?
If EU countries fund or support arrangements that result in human rights violations in other countries, they will be not only complicit but also legally responsible. Even if these human rights concerns were properly addressed, the proposed centres would still be doomed to fail because of the sheer number of people likely to wind up there. It’s unlikely that EU countries will provide an open-ended number of places for people in need of international protection. People fleeing from persecution and conflict will find a way to circumvent the system, even if it’s at great risk to themselves.
The same is true of economic migrants. Throughout human history people have migrated to seek better opportunities. If you’re so desperate that you’re willing to risk your life for the prospect of a job, the promise of spending months in a detention centre is unlikely to deter you from your ultimate goal.
The EU’s approach is failing because it’s looking for a quick fix to the wrong problem. Short-term political considerations have led it to try to reduce migration using increasingly expensive means that yield little result.
Between 2007 and 2013 the EU spent €1.8bn on its External Borders Fund, and individual EU countries collectively spent much more. Despite the establishment of the EU border agency Frontex in 2004 and, last year, of Eurosur, a sophisticated surveillance system aimed at migration control, the number of people making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean continues to rise.
Instead of spending billions trying to keep people out, EU countries should bolster legal migration channels. They can start by increasing the number of resettlement places for refugees. EU countries should also band together to share the burden, rather than leaving a few to absorb most of the incoming migration while the rest look on.
This op-ed originally appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free.
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