Following Italy’s hardline on migration which saw two migrant rescue ships stranded at sea earlier this month, EU leaders have reached a vague agreement on migration policy to share the influx of refugees. After nine hours of extensive talks in Brussels, political unrest amongst EU member states is still prevalent as proposed measures fail to provide concrete plans to minimize dangerous migration journeys and prioritize efforts to save lives at sea. The new deal proposes to create secure centres in EU states on a voluntary basis, however, no details on which nations may host these centres have been disclosed. The 28 EU leaders also agreed to strengthen border controls and create migrant processing centres outside the EU.
A recently released report by the Human Rights Watch critiques the EU’s current approach to focus on preventing the arrival of asylum seekers by outsourcing responsibility to countries outside of the EU and downgrading refugee protection within the EU. While externalization is not harmful as a policy approach it does, however, cultivate a hostile environment in which people are subject to violation of human rights. The Human Rights Watch also outlines the increased support for the Libyan coast guard in the form of training, equipment and funds. As a result, the International Organization for Migration estimates close to 10,200 migrants attempting to find refuge in Europe by sea has been returned so far this year. Karline Kleijer, head of emergencies for the aid group, Doctors without Borders, stated, “EU member states are abdicating their responsibilities to save lives and deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea,” she further added, “they do this fully aware of the extreme violence and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer in Libya.”
The refusal of the Italian government to allow NGO rescue ships to dock further reflects the breakdown of regional cooperation and solidarity. The Human Rights Watch suggests the Italian hardline on migrants rescued at sea to demonize NGO search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean by accusing them of facilitating “illegal migration.” While legal action and restrictions have led many NGO rescue efforts to pull out, the need for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean was tragically evident only hours after the EU summit. A rubber boat carrying 100 people searching for a better life, including three babies, capsized off the Libyan coast. The International Organization for Migration has confirmed a hundred or more people to have died, while the bodies of three children under the age of five have been retrieved.
During a time of rising populism, the recent increase in illegal migration routes across the Mediterranean poses public and political pressure on EU nation states, despite illegal border crossings into the EU decreasing by 95% since its peak in October 2015. The EU and its member states have a humanitarian obligation to adopt a shared commitment to not only save lives at sea, but also refrain from allowing Libyan coast guard forces to intercept boats carrying migrants until Libya is declared a safe place under the international maritime law, human rights law and refugee law.
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