Mediterranean journeys in hope

Fortifying the outer defences under the guise of partnership

The EU is moving deeper into its project of externalising border management, further endangering its claim to be a defender of human rights.

Janina Pescinski
30 June 2016

A Syrian refugee hangs clothes to dry at a camp in Islahiye, Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey, on 16 March 2016. Lefteris Pitarakis/Press Association. All rights reserved.

As part of its ongoing crackdown on migrant arrivals, the European Union is now looking beyond Turkey to origin and transit countries across Africa and the Middle East. At the end of June, the EU Council endorsed a new partnership framework put forward by the Commission, to negotiate direct agreements with third countries as part of the European Agenda on Migration. This proposal is problematic in both its priorities and its choice of partners, but there is still hope for the EU to consider more welcoming alternatives.

Implications of the EU-Turkey deal

Although the EU has proclaimed its deal with Turkey a success because of the dramatic decrease in migrant arrivals to Greece, until now it has not addressed the parallel increase in migrant arrivals across the Mediterranean to Italy. The EU-Turkey deal and strict border controls do not serve as a deterrent to those forced to migrate; this has only shifted the most frequented routes and precipitated the emergence of riskier border crossing strategies. Now, more migrants come across the Horn of Africa or through West Africa, convening in Libya before attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing that has already claimed at least 2,859 lives this year.

Problematic priorities

Country packages tie migration outcomes to development assistance and trade policy for “maximum leverage”.

The EU’s intention with the new partnership framework is to reach tailored agreements with specific third countries to reduce irregular migration and increase migrant returns. The Commission has selected sixteen priority countries that are origin and transit states for migrants. Each country package will tie migration outcomes to development assistance, trade policy, as well as policies in other sectors from education to climate change for “maximum leverage”.

Development assistance in priority countries will focus on areas of origin of migrants, which might not necessarily be the areas most in need of development assistance. Such a policy conflates development assistance and migration policy by using development as an incentive and not as an objective in and of itself. The framework also promotes a system of negative conditionality in which countries that do not comply with EU priorities are punished with reduced assistance or reevaluating trade preferences. Although the EU has already practiced such measures on an ad hoc basis, putting them in writing sets a precedent to make them the norm.

Additionally, the partnership framework reiterates the familiar priorities of stopping smugglers and increasing border controls in order to prevent irregular migration, the exact ‘solutions’ that push people to embark on even more dangerous migration journeys.

Shared responsibility or shirking responsibility?

The EU repeatedly uses the rhetoric of “shared responsibility” in addressing migration, but in practice is it not pursuing equal partnerships. Starting with the Valletta Summit in November 2015, the EU is effectively trying to determine the migration agenda for African states by imposing its priorities and threatening a reduction of assistance to governments who do not comply.

Border controls, which are already strict at the physical limits of Europe, are now being externalised so that they are geographically located in African states. Niger is the major country of transit in West Africa, therefore the EU, in cooperation with UNHCR and the IOM, has established a “multi-purpose centre” to encourage voluntary return and to propose alternatives to irregular migration. Effectively, the centre is intended to stop migrants before they even reach the borders of Europe. The centre is a pilot project that could be replicated in other countries as part of an increasing attempt to shift the burden for migration management onto origin and transit states. By doing so, the EU is able to shirk its own responsibilities to welcome refugees.

Suspicious partners

Among the sixteen priority countries are numerous undemocratic regimes that systematically abuse human rights, most shockingly Sudan and Eritrea. Both are source countries for refugees, and Sudan is also along the route for many migrants hoping to depart from Libya. Leaving these countries is not just risky but life-threatening: Eritrean soldiers have been instructed to shoot anyone attempting to cross the border without permission. People who attempt the journey do not take such a decision lightly; yet they continue to do so with the hope of reaching security and opportunity in Europe.

By cooperating with the authoritarian governments of Sudan and Eritrea, the EU reinforces them by treating them as legitimate partners – ironic and perhaps self-defeating given that the policies of those same governments drive migration and increase the market for smuggling. Such agreements make the EU complicit with authoritarian regimes, and effectively make the EU a silent partner is suppressing people’s fundamental human rights.

Potential for a hopeful solution

Any migration policy whose primary purpose is to prevent migration is bound to fail. Undocumented migration will not be stopped by more stringent border controls, or anti-smuggling efforts, or even development initiatives in countries of origin. Instead of throwing money at policies to discourage mobility or force returns, member states might instead choose to use these funds in more productive ways to aid migrants and refugees who are arriving in Europe.

The EU’s current approach to migration policy clearly indicates that it sees migration as a burden, however migration can be seen as an opportunity. Instead of further suppressing peoples’ right to freedom of movement, more could be done to facilitate that right by opening humanitarian channels for those seeking asylum and establishing more pathways for migrants to enter the EU legally.

Migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa are embarking upon journeys of hope. They will be able to better integrate and contribute to European societies when they have safe options to leave their countries with the proper documentation, and that is a solution that the EU could do more to promote.

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