European policies on refugees and asylum seekers are increasingly restrictive. Borders are effectively being pushed off-shore, extending the problems of border management as far south as possible. Aurélie Ponthieu explains the effects of these measures, including crowded refugee centers on the Italian and Greek borders, deplorable conditions in Libyan detention centers and fewer rescues at sea. Ponthieu, the coordinator of the Forced Migration Team in the analysis department of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Belgium, was interviewed by Nabil Al-Tikriti.
What is current European Union policy regarding asylum seekers entering Europe from across the Mediterranean and Aegean seas?
European policies on migration and asylum have grown more and more restrictive since the end of the 1990s. As European Union (EU) internal borders disappeared, there has been a reinforcement of Europe’s external borders and a gradual transformation of asylum and migration processes into matters of security. Today, most external land borders are heavily patrolled and enclosed by fences. This situation has led to a shift of refugee and migratory movements towards sea borders with Greece, Italy and Spain—a deadly shift. Frontex, which was formerly the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the EU and is now called the European Border and Coast Guards Agency, was established in 2004. Its main task is to support member states in controlling external borders. The agency is one of the main tools of the EU to fight, as the European Commission puts it, “irregular migration.”  Both its budget and responsibilities have been growing steadily since its creation: Its annual budget is now 250 million Euros ($295 million).
A restrictive approach to migration and asylum in Europe is not new, but there has been an acceleration of restrictive policies since 2015, in particular policies aimed at externalizing border controls and containing those seeking refuge at the borders. In May 2015, the European Commission adopted the “Agenda on Migration” in response to increasing numbers of people seeking EU protection at Italian and Greek borders, as many were dying at sea for lack of safer migration options.  Some of these measures have contributed to worsening conditions asylum seekers face when entering Italy and Greece. For example, the EU creation of “hotspots,” as the Agenda states, to “swiftly identify, register, and fingerprint migrants” and refugees arriving in “frontline Member States,” and coordinate relocation or returns, have turned out to be chronically overcrowded centers offering not even minimum humanitarian standards.  There is also evidence that the EU-designated “anti-smuggling” military operation, Operation Sophia, which destroys migrants’ boats at sea to prevent their re-use by smugglers, has led to further problems. Smugglers have turned to using single-use boats, usually cheaply constructed Zodiacs, which are far more dangerous and less seaworthy, for their passengers than the repurposed wooden fishing boats.
Not all of the measures of the European Agenda on Migration are problematic. But those more likely to improve the humanitarian situation, such as the intra-EU relocation scheme, which facilitates the relocation of migrants within EU member states while awaiting asylum adjudication, or the creation of safe and legal migration and resettlement pathways, have been de-prioritized by member states or conditioned on the achievement of a “zero irregular migration” objective, a goal which all recognize is impossible to achieve. The EU-Turkey Joint Statement, which followed the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan, is a clear example of conditionality in EU migration management. The Statement was adopted in March 2016 and theoretically gave Turkey an aid package worth $6 billion and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe in exchange for Turkey’s prevention of further “irregular migration” into Greece. Turkey was also expected to readmit those asylum seekers whose claims were found inadmissible when they arrived at the Greek islands.
What is the status of the EU-Turkey Joint Statement? Is it, as some suggest, near to breaking down? Has its implementation materially affected the treatment of those continuing to seek refuge on the Greek islands?
The EU-Turskey arrangement remains unchallenged and is perceived as a success by the EU, despite its negative humanitarian consequences. The announced objectives of the Statement were to save lives and put smugglers out of business by reducing incentives for “irregular migration” and offering a safe alternative for people to reach the EU. For every Syrian forcibly “returned” to Turkey, there would be one Syrian resettled in the EU, up to a maximum of 72,000 people. In addition to such a human swap being morally questionable, the deal failed to achieve its stated objective of offering safer options than the smugglers and the sea. Presumably, the only real objective was to “stem the flow” at all costs, and EU member states now present it as a success because the number of crossings has indeed significantly dropped since its adoption. The arrangement, however, remains fragile, as it is not addressing the root causes of these population movements and is based on a financial and political agreement with Turkey. With this strategy, the EU has put itself in a vulnerable position. Turkey has threatened to stop adhering to its part of the deal (keeping people in the country) many times, but so far that has not transpired. There are benefits on both sides, as Turkey has been able to seal its own southern borders to Syrian refugees without any condemnation from the EU.
Since the EU-Turkey Joint Statement was adopted, no one can argue that the number of people in need of a safe haven has decreased. They now have even fewer options. Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has also documented the effects on the people trapped by the deal on the Greek islands. Living conditions in the “hotspots” are horrendous. In Moria, on Lesbos, there reside 7,500 people, 60 percent of whom are women and children, in a center with a capacity for 2,300. Some people have now been stuck on the islands for more than a year, waiting for a hypothetical forced return to Turkey. The health and lives of asylum seekers and migrants living on the Greek islands remain at risk. They are confined to the islands for months on end with little hope of getting the asylum they are seeking, with inadequate access to health and sanitation services, and at risk of fires, fights and violence.
Despite evidence of the damaging human and health consequences of this policy of containment, the EU has decided to put the survival of the EU-Turkey deal ahead of the safety and protection of asylum seekers, claiming that they cannot evacuate the islands, as Turkey has made clear that they will not accept people who have been moved to mainland sites. The main problem is that the EU-Turkey arrangement is based on a false assumption—the idea that you can easily distinguish between those who deserve international protection and those who do not in a matter of a few days and return the undeserving ones to a third country. The reality is very different. Over the past year, MSF’s experience of providing assistance to people caught in the middle of this deal points to only one conclusion: that human beings, with personal stories, individual vulnerabilities and ostensibly-guaranteed rights, are being treated like commodities, warehoused and traded, with severe individual and collective suffering for those trying to move, as well as ethical and moral consequences for the EU vision of visa-free internal travel.
What is the humanitarian and human rights situation in Libyan detention centers? Has this situation changed in the past year, following recent agreements between civil authorities in Libya and the EU?
The situation of migrants and refugees trapped in Libya has been well-known for a long time, and has been documented by many different actors, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations and the media. Migrants in Libya are treated like commodities, bought and sold at market auctions and facing all types of abuse, from forced labor to torture, sexual violence and exploitation. What is striking is that these infamous detention centers were created under Gaddafi with the blessing of the EU whose member states pushed Libya to start detaining people. Today they claim to be shocked by what they see, which is quite hypocritical. In spite of the outcry, the situation remains scandalously poor. International protection agencies, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), still have only limited access to official detention facilities and no access at all to unofficial ones. The detention system has been described by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as “broken beyond repair.” After a November 2017 CNN video demonstrated the existence of contemporary slave auctions,  those detained were evacuated to countries of origin and to neighboring Niger. A few people have been resettled in Europe—but this is a drop in the ocean and unlikely to continue in the long run. We hear more and more about smugglers turning to kidnapping and human trafficking, as their business model is impacted by increased interceptions of migrant-carrying vessels by the EU-trained Libyan “Coast Guard,” which is more of an informal seaborne militia than a national coast guard. More and more boats are now intercepted and brought back to Libya, meaning those who have managed to escape the atrocities they faced in Libya are being returned to detention centers.
Which NGOs are currently conducting Mediterranean rescue missions, now that these sorts of projects have faced a backlash among some parts of European society, such as the use of harassment vessels and efforts to prosecute those conducting sea rescues?
Proactive “search and rescue” (SAR) operations are indeed under attack. Following severe—if unfounded—accusations from Frontex at the end of 2017, the Italian authorities and judiciary have engaged in a dangerous blame game with humanitarian SAR actors, who are often labelled as “pull factors” for continued migration. Politicians and members of EU governments have even publicly accused NGOs of being human traffickers. Given the failure to reduce the number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, someone had to be at fault. NGOs have faced the blame that should have been put on EU governments for their failure to respond adequately to what is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis.
Italy, at the request of the European Commission, drew up a “Code of Conduct” in 2017 that search and rescue NGOs working in the Mediterranean were required to sign. The proposed conditions for sea rescue, which MSF refused to accept, led to increased tensions between Italy and the NGOs. The code of conduct mandates compliance with the EU’s externalization agenda, most notably by facilitating interceptions at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard.  This step turned out to be the first in a process of criminalization of, and deterrence against, NGOs at sea. The second step was the seizure of the Iuventa, a boat chartered by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, suspected of “facilitating irregular migration.” More recently, a second NGO boat, the Open Arms, was seized in Sicily, with its members also suspected of the same charge after refusing to hand people they had rescued over to the Libyan Coast Guard. As a result, there are only four NGOs left operating at sea, only two with sufficient on-board capacity to ferry people all the way to a safe port in Italy.
The European Agenda on Migration
(As defined by the European Commission and adopted in May 2015)
The budget for FRONTEX Poseidon and Triton search and rescue (SAR) operations was provided an additional €26.8 million and the area of operation of Triton was extended to 138 nautical miles southward of Sicily’s coasts.
The new concept of hotspots was created to swiftly identify, register and fingerprint migrants and refugees arriving in frontline member states and coordinate relocation or returns.
Common Security and Defense Policy (CDSP) operation EUNAVFORMED-Sophia was launched in the Mediterranean Sea to divert, capture and destroy smugglers’ boats.
Reducing the incentives for irregular migration.
Saving lives and securing the external borders.
Developing a strong asylum policy (including through the full implementation of the Common European Asylum System—CEAS).
Defining a new policy on legal migration.
1. “Irregular Migration and Return,” European Commission.
2. “A European Agenda on Migration,” European Commission, May 2015.
3. “The Hotspot Approach to Managing Exceptional Migratory Flows,” European Commission, July 2015.
4. Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt and Bryony Jones, “People for Sale: Where Lives are Auctioned for $400,” CNN Special Report, November 14, 2017.
5. “Code of Conduct for NGOs Involved in Migrants’ Rescue Operations at Sea,”Statewatch, July 2017.