A radical change is needed to failing EU migration policy

By Matteo de Bellis

As world refugee day was being marked around the globe came the all too familiar news that at least 120 people had drowned off the coast of Libya. Their deaths bring the total number of people who have died whilst attempting to cross the central Mediterranean to more than 1,800 since the start of the year.

As world refugee day was being marked came the all too familiar news that at least 120 people had drowned off the coast of Libya
Matteo de Bellis

Against this grim backdrop, European leaders meet today in Brussels and discuss migration. Each leader will no doubt lament these latest deaths. But despite their hand-wringing rhetoric, the focus of their discussion will not be the importance of saving lives. Instead it will be how to reduce the number of people arriving in Europe by reinforcing cooperation with African countries to stem irregular migration.

This strategy not only exacerbates the disparity between developed and developing countries in the number of refugees they are taking in, it also undermines any claim by the EU to be a standard bearer for human rights.

It is also being pursued through wrong policies.

Rather than offering refugees and migrants opportunities to avoid irregular border crossings, such as the creation of safe and legal routes for people to move to Europe, as well as improving conditions in refugee camps and establishing viable asylum-systems, the focus has been on increasing border controls and stepping up returns.

Current policy undermines any claim by the EU to be a standard bearer for human rights
Matteo de Bellis

No matter how much money European governments invest in international aid projects purportedly intended to address the root causes of displacement, the reality is that EU leaders have so far largely favoured projects which create barriers for migration, and used international aid as leverage to get African governments to cooperate in their implementation. Their currently preferred method seems to be “externalization”. This involves recruiting countries which refugees and migrants come from or travel through, to tighten border control, or shifting protection responsibilities to other countries.

Externalisation policies increase the likelihood of human rights violations. This is particularly the case if measures to tighten border control are encouraged politically (including by leveraging aid) and facilitated technically (through training and equipment) in countries with problematic human rights records.

Externalization policies may encourage or support refoulement, collective expulsions, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and other serious human rights violations. Investing in such measures might not even achieve the desired result of reducing irregular arrivals. In the absence of alternatives to dangerous irregular crossings people fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty will still try to flee the only way they can, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.

A shameful example of how this works in practice is Europe’s cooperation with Libya. Despite warnings that this would continue and even fuel human rights violations, European leaders have continued to deepen cooperation with the Libyan coastguard, through training and even provision of boats, in the hope of stopping sea crossings. They are now looking at supporting Libyan border control capacity in the south of the country.

This is happening despite the absence of any concrete plan to improve human rights protection in Libya and in particular conditions for refugees and migrants in the country. Refugees and migrants are detained automatically and people in need of international protection have no prospect of claiming asylum as Libya has no legal asylum framework. In fact by empowering the Libyan coastguard to intercept refugees and migrants at sea and take them back to Libya, EU policy is exposing thousands to unspeakable abuses in the detention centres where they are sent upon disembarkation. Centres where they are detained indefinitely and subjected to torture, beatings, rape and exploitation by guards.

As we have seen in multiple sea interceptions carried out over the past months, the Libyan coastguard disregards basic safety protocols and international standards, including by opening fire during rescue operations at sea. Refugees and migrants are put at risk while the EU looks the other way. Meanwhile, the number of irregular crossings and deaths at sea continue to rise.

This might be the most troubling example of how cooperation may lead to unintended but foreseeable consequences, but it is by no means the only one. In the pursuit of quick fixes to reduce migration, European governments are further developing measures – such as the labelling of certain countries as “safe” for returns – that increase the risk of human rights violations. So desperate are they to achieve the goal to reduce arrivals that they are prepared to trample the rights of desperate men, women and children seeking safety in Europe

EU leaders have an opportunity to revert this course of action. At the very minimum, they should refrain from any form of cooperation that might leave refugees and migrants stranded in countries where they are exposed to human rights violations, like Libya or Sudan (?). They must monitor and address the human rights risks which might arise from or be linked to any cooperation.

A bold plan is needed to support human rights protection and make safe routes available to both refugees and would-be migrants
Matteo de Bellis

But a much more radical change is needed. As they review their external migration policies today and tomorrow, European leaders must end their focus on the short term objective of reducing irregular crossings through externalization policies. Instead, a bold plan is needed to support human rights protection in countries of origin and transit and to make safe routes available to both refugees and would-be migrants. Such measures would provide a safer and more orderly alternative to dangerous irregular crossings and in so doing, steer refugees and migrants away from criminal networks who leech off their misery. Only then will the tragedy of lives lost at sea become a thing of the past and the rights of vulnerable men, women and children will be truly protected.

This article first appeared appeared here in Newsweek.

Matteo de Bellis is Amnesty International's migration researcher.

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