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    Commission clarifies Council decisions on migration

    The European Council conclusions last week on migration were drafted in the middle of the night and left both EU leaders and journalists without clarity on how  the so-called disembarkation platforms in non-EU countries and controlled centres in EU countries for illegal migrants will work and when they would be established. Some were also wondering why these new measure were needed when the number of illegal migrants have dropped drastically on almost all routes leading to EU. On the eastern Mediterranean route arrivals have dropped by 97 % or from 10,000 to 81 per day following the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016.

    On the central Mediterranean route, crossing the sea from Libya and other countries in North Africa, arrivals dropped by 77 %.

    But apparently this is not enough. The Council was pressed by EU member states that oppose receiving any migrants at all, whether directly or by secondary movement, and other member states who accept asylum seekers but not economic migrants, who may account for the majority of those trying to reach the shores of Europe.

    European Council President Donald Tusk was unusually blunt about the political pressure at one of the press conferences during the summit. “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.”

    The new proposals are presented as a response to the smuggling of migrants and the need to break “definitely” the business model of the smugglers and “eliminate the incentive to embark on perilous journeys”. Migrants are still risking their lives in the Mediterranean Sea.

    While EU and member states are managing search and rescue operations at sea, EU will be relying on the Libyan coast card to carry out such operations in its territorial waters and return the migrants to Libya, despite the conditions there and the fact that Libya is not considered a safe country.

    “The Libyan coast guard is coordinating rescue operations in its territorial waters and other vessels must obey their instructions,” confirmed a Commission spokesperson this week. If migrants are rescued by and taken on board on European vessels, they will not be returned to Libya, according to the spokesperson,

    However, the closest member states, Italy and Malta, are not willing to allow them to disembark in their ports. Asked whether this is consistent with international maritime law, the spokesperson replied that it can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.

    “Nothing in the law says that the country coordinating the rescue operations must be the port of embarkation.”

    Asked by the Brussels Times about the tasks of the Libyan coast guard, a Commission spokesperson replied that the coast guard is only instructed to rescue such boats in distress – not to prevent them from leaving the Libyan territorial water.

    NGO boats with migrants in Libyan water are not obliged to turn over them to the Libyan coast guard but are obliged not to intervene if the coast guard instruct them not to do when it itself is carrying out the rescue operation.

    If migrants are disembarked in the new regional “platforms” or centres in Libya and other third countries, after having been rescued in their territorial waters, they will not acquire the right to access the asylum procedure in an EU member state, explained the Commission ahead of the summit.

    In its conclusions, however, the European Council, write that the “platforms should operate distinguishing individual situations”. A spokesperson told the Brussels times that it refers to distinguishing between economic migrants and genuine asylum seekers.

    The status of migrants, who have been placed in a “controlled centre” in a member state, after having been rescued in the territorial water of a member state or by an EU state’s flag vessel, is different. These centres are supposed to work as an upgraded version of the already existing hotspots in Greece and Italy and launch asylum procedures.

    “The initial assessment always takes place in the country of first entry. Only those with a high chance of receiving asylum in another member state are relocated,” explained the spokesperson.

    For migrants and refugees, setting out to cross the Mediterranean Sea on non-seaworthy boats, it is a life-and death decision, not knowing if they will reach Europe, be returned to Libya or drown in the sea. The Commission cannot advice asylum seekers what to do, occupied as it is in solving its own dilemma of protecting EU’s external borders, keeping internal borders open and complying with asylum legislation.

    M.Apelblat
    The Brussels Times