EU seeks to screen migrants in Africa, stop boat crossings

2018-06-21 20:30

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Unwilling to share responsibility for tens of thousands of people arriving each year in search of better or safer lives, European Union leaders are preparing in coming days to take more steps to keep migrants out.

In talks over the next week, EU leaders will affirm their intention to stop migrants leaving north African shores by paying countries like Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia to hold people until their eligibility for asylum can be established.

The leaders will back the creation of "regional disembarkation platforms." Essentially, people striking out for Italy in unseaworthy boats could be taken back - for instance, to Libya if picked up by the EU-financed and trained Libyan coast guard - or transported to neighbouring countries for screening.

These platforms "should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys," according to a draft statement prepared for the June 28-29 EU summit in Brussels.

This will be done, the statement said, in close cooperation with the UN refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration. Both organisations have been discussing ways to handle sea arrivals inside the EU, but not in Africa, although they do work in Libya. No African country has yet agreed to take part, the EU's top migration official said on Thursday.

Several EU leaders are also to hold emergency migration talks in Brussels on Sunday to prepare for next week's summit.

It's all happening as the number of people arriving in Europe by boat decreases. The UNHCR says that if current trends continue, some 80 000 people will enter via the Mediterranean Sea this year, mostly in Italy, Greece and Spain. That's around half the number who arrived in 2017.

"We do not have a crisis of numbers. We continue to have a crisis of political will," UNHCR Europe chief Sophie Magennis said on Monday.

Europe's divisions over migration and the state of its inadequate asylum laws were exposed again last week by an embarrassing row involving Italy, Malta and France over who should take responsibility for more than 600 people, including children and pregnant women, rescued from the sea off Libya.

Spain eventually offered safe harbour to the rescue ship carrying them.

Concerned that anti-migrant parties will exploit the divisions, the Europeans are looking to outsource the challenge, much as they did by persuading Turkey to tighten its borders. Anti-migrant parties have been winning votes since over 1 million people entered the EU in 2015, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.

"The problem didn't start just a few kilometers off the Italian coast," French President Emmanuel Macron said this week. The answer, he said, lies in working with "countries of origin and transit, whether that be in Africa or elsewhere."

On Tuesday, EU countries agreed to change the rules governing Europe's passport-free travel zone, known as the Schengen area. The move will allow countries to carry out ID checks on people for longer than allowed under current rules.

Ultimately, the EU's aim is to promote action after a series of responses by individual countries - like building fences, deploying troops, introducing border checks or simply keeping them open - sparked confusion and tension among EU partners.

"Unilateral measures on migration are just not the answer. Not only would they not work, but they would also damage everything the European Union has built," EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said Thursday. "And our Schengen area of free movement most of all."

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Read more on:    un  |  eu  |  egypt  |  libya  |  tunisia  |  algeria  |  morocco  |  africa

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