The European migration crisis has been recorded to reflect the time period beginning in 2015 when more than one million migrants and refugees fleeing conflict first crossed into Europe resulting in the status of crisis. As countries struggled to cope with this large influx, political unrest amongst EU member states prevailed during policy talks determining how to best deal with the resettlement of people.
The International Organization of Migration estimates more than one million migrants to have arrived by sea with an additional 34,000 by land in 2015 alone. Tensions sparked within the EU as border countries, specifically Greece and Italy, argued to be disproportionately burdened as a result of being first ports of entry receiving the majority of arriving migrants. The European Union, in September 2015, committed to a two-year plan of relocation for up to 160,000 people who had arrived in Italy and Greece across EU nation states. The European commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told the European Parliament at the time: “Relocation is vital to the success of our migration and asylum policies based on solidarity and responsibility. For this, one element remains critical for the success of the scheme: the political will and the mutual cooperation and trust between member states.” By May 2017, while some countries refusing to take in any migrants, only a few thousand had been relocated, and since the quota system expired in September 2017, no permanent relocated system has been introduced. This means countries like Italy have once again sparked divisive political discourse after taking a hard-line on migration which saw multiple migrant rescue ships stranded at sea earlier this year.
After the Italian government closed its ports to rescue migrant ships earlier this year, the meeting of European leaders in June, intended to focus on Brexit, was dominated by the issue of how to deal with the arrival of migrants crossing the Mediterranean seeking safety and a better life in Europe. Following hours of deliberations, an agreement was reached and the European Council released a statement describing the deal as encompassing a “comprehensive approach to migration that combines more effective control of the EU’s external borders, increased external action and the internal aspects, in line with our principles and values.” The proposed internal aspects remain to be based on a voluntary system and without substantial plans as many EU nation states continue to reject accepting additional migrants and the opening of processing centres. The narrative of external measures has been driven by European leaders since the crisis first emerged in 2015, and is intended to prevent the irregular arrivals of migrants by outsourcing border control and migrant processing to countries outside of EU. In June 2016, the European Union adopted a Partnership Framework with third countries placing migration cooperation at the core of foreign policy and development aid. Essentially, aiming to reduce the number of migrants entering Europe as well as returning rejected asylum seekers, illegal border crossings into the EU decreased by 95% since its peak in October 2015.
While externalization may not be harmful as a policy approach, it can be argued to cultivate a hostile environment in which people are subject to human rights violations. A recently released report by the Human Rights Watch critiqued the EU’s primary focus of preventing irregular arrivals into Europe as undermining the right to seek asylum by forcing people to seek protection in countries lacking a functioning asylum system and therefore leading people to be trapped in abusive situations. An example of human rights abuses due to the externalization of border control is the migration cooperation with Libya. The EU and individual member states have been providing training, equipment and funds to the Libyan coast guard with the aim of increasing its capacity for control over operations in international waters. By ordering NGO rescue ships to stand down and countries refusing them to dock in the ports of Europe, Libyan coast guard forces have increasingly intercepted migrants in the Mediterranean and forced them back into indefinite and abusive detention within Libya. The Libyan government, at a legislative level, criminalizes irregular entry and exit, therefore, any refugee or migrant found in Libya is potentially at the risk of being taken to a detention centre at any time. A report released by Amnesty International describes migrants in Libyan state detention centres to be “held in horrific conditions which amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law due to profound overcrowding, lack of access to medical care and inadequate nutrition. And they are systematically exposed to torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence and severe beatings, and extortion. They are also at times killed or left to die after being tortured, exploited, abused, or sold on for forced labour and other forms of exploitation to other militias, armed groups or criminal gangs.” Similar abuses are described in detention centres controlled by militia and armed groups including footage released last year revealing men being sold at an auction. Amnesty International urges European governments and institutions to acknowledge the inadequacies of policies focused on outsourcing border control to third countries and establishing safe, legal pathways for refugees as well as addressing the root causes of forced displacement; conflict, human rights violations and poverty.
Despite the declining arrival of migrants into Europe each year, externalization may be effective in reducing the burden of responsibility shared disproportionately by a few EU nation states. However, this reduction of responsibility and burden should not come at the expense of human rights abuse of the most vulnerable migrant population trapped in countries declared unsafe under the international maritime law, human rights law and refugee law. “The EU is turning a blind eye to the suffering caused by its callous immigration policies that outsource border control to Libya,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director. In a period of increased political unrest amongst EU member states, European leaders must stop playing politics and focus on fixing a migration system which promotes shared responsibility and ensures the eradication of widespread systematic violations and abuses of asylum seekers.
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