The refugee crisis in 2015 took EU with surprise. The European Commission launched an ambitious migration agenda in 2016 aiming at reforming the common asylum system, stemming the flow of illegal migrants to Europe, breaking the business model of trafficking and rescuing migrants at sea.
Many of the aims have been achieved but some unfinished business is left to the new Commission that will take over as of November. Migration remains one of the most divisive and important issues on the EU agenda.
Whether or not immigration is in Europe’s economic self-interest, there are international and European obligations to grant asylum to those who are fleeing wars, terror and persecutions. In 2016, the Commission initiated a package of seven legislative proposals aiming at reforming the asylum system. Two central pieces in that package have not been adopted yet.
One of them is a reform of the Dublin Regulation that requires that asylum applications be dealt with by the first country of entry. This rule has been unfair to the front states such as Malta, Italy and Greece where most migrants and refugees arrived.
But it is not enough to revise the Dublin Regulation and agree on a fair distribution of asylum seekers among Member States. There is no uniform handling of asylum applications across the EU Member States.
The other issue is a common list of third countries and countries of origin that can be considered as safe and to which migrants can be returned if their asylum applications are rejected. Currently each Member State decides on a case by case basis which country is safe for return of migrants.
At today’s press briefing in Brussels, a Commission spokesperson confirmed that these issues were part of the package in 2016 and will have to be taken up by the new Commission as a matter of urgency.
A ministerial meeting on migration was also held today in Malta, with the participation of Malta, Italy, France, Germany, Finland (EU presidency) and the Commissioner responsible for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos.
At the meeting, a common paper on temporary arrangements for disembarkation following rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea was adopted and will be presented to the other Member States at a Council meeting on 8 October. The current situation is not sustainable and finding a solution was seen as a litmus test of the possibility of going ahead with the reform of the common asylum system.
Unsafe in Libya
The situation in Libya, from where many migrants are trying desperately to reach Europe, illustrates the challenges EU is facing. Libya is a failed state, controlled by fighting militias and divided between a UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli and a Libyan National Army in Tobruk.
The country is not safe and does not meet the conditions for hosting migrants. Despite this, migrants intercepted or rescued at sea by the EU-trained and funded Libyan Coast Gard are returned to Libya, where they often are imprisoned in detention centres under appalling conditions.
In the on-going civil war in Libya, the Tajoura detention centre in Tripoli was hit by an attack on 2 July which resulted in the death of more than 50 migrants. The bombing was condemned by the international community and might have been a war crime.
It prompted EU, UN and international organisations to demand the closing down of all detention centres in Libya. The Tajoura centre seems to have been closed with the surviving migrants moved to a safer place in Tripoli but there are several more detention centres with reportedly up to 5,000 detainees.
Media has been reporting about torture, abuse and slavery in the detention centres. The European Commission is working with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the context of the African Union-European Union-United Nations Task Force to support and protect refugees and migrants in Libya.
IOM’s so-called Detention Centre Profile Generator shows a mixed picture of irregular access to health services, lack of psychosocial support, insufficient sanitary conditions, lack of water and food, no access to legal service, limited time to spend outdoors and no access to media and internet.
An EU Spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the conditions in the detention centres are unacceptable and that they should be closed.
“Under international law, the detaining authorities are responsible for providing a human treatment and the basic needs of the people held. EU is working to find ways to make sure that migrants are not held in detention centres in the first place and to put an end to the arbitrary detention system in Libya.”
According to the spokesperson, EU is supporting UN organisations and international NGOs to access detention centres and to provide assistance and protection of the detainees.
If the centres are to be closed, what alternatives are there? “EU follows up closely with the Libyan authorities what concrete steps have been taken to empty and close the three detention centres announced during the summer by the Libyan authorities, and to ascertain what arrangements are in place for those currently detained,” the spokesperson replied.
The EU has supported the IOM to voluntarily return people to their countries of origin and UNHCR to evacuate people in need of international protection out of Libya. Close to 48,000 people have been able to return home from Libya with reintegration support, and over 4,400 persons eligible for international protection have been evacuated out of Libya since 2017.
The EU has also encouraged Member States to speed up resettlements and to increase the number of resettlement places offered for persons in Libya or for evacuees in Niger. Resettlements to the EU are part of the current EU scheme to resettle 50,000 people in need of international protection, including from Libya, by the end of October 2019 and supported by a budget of €500 million.
“We will continue encouraging Libyan authorities to proceed with the closure of the detention centres, establish alternatives to detention, set up a registration system for migrants and regularize those who qualify to be integrated in Libyan labour market,” says the spokesperson.