Will Europe make migrant crisis worse?

Editor’s Note: Bill Frelick is refugee program director at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.

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Hundreds feared dead after ship carrying migrants capsized

Bill Frelick: Current surge in migrants was predictable

CNN  — 

“Tragic developments” was the apt description by the European Commission of what may prove to be the largest maritime disaster the Mediterranean has seen. But while European officials have been quick with sympathetic words following the capsizing on Saturday of a ship that may have claimed some 800 lives – it has been much too slow in addressing the entirely predictable surge in boat departures that formed the backdrop to this tragedy.

The reality is that as early as last November – almost six months ago – drivers of migration in refugee-producing countries, such as conflict, human rights abuse, endemic poverty, were picking up steam. This was occurring even as the chaos in the main country of embarkation, Libya, continued.

It was also clear that a dearth of safe and orderly mechanisms for asylum seekers to access EU territory, and a lack of effective protection across vast stretches of the Middle East and North Africa, would mean continuing – if not escalating – irregular boat departures.

Yet it was precisely at this time that the EU decided to replace Italy’s robust Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation with its own scaled-down Operation Triton, primarily focused on border enforcement rather than rescue.

Mare Nostrum, we were told, had been a magnet for departures. Take away the rescue, we heard, and they won’t come. Yet the statistics have proven this to be false – between the end of Mare Nostrum in November 2014 and March 2015, the number of irregular boat migrants recorded was almost double the same period a year earlier.

Next, we were told this is all about traffickers forcing unwilling migrants aboard boats, in a process akin to a modern slave trade or forced labor. But while I have spoken to migrants who balked at the sight of the rickety boats they were forced to board by their handlers, the preoccupation with traffickers distorts the totality of circumstances that lead migrants to embark on dangerous journeys, including their assessment of the dangers they face. Indeed, this view also conflates traffickers with other smugglers, who also violate the law in demanding payment for helping people enter a country other than by traditional legal means.

Ultimately, this approach has shifted the focus away from the reasons people flee their countries and risk their lives on the boats. (One need only look at the fact that more than half of those arriving in Italy last year were from Syria and other conflict-wracked countries to understand the real reasons they are so desperate to leave).

Unfortunately, the proposals and statements from EU officials in advance of the extraordinary European Council summit to develop a new European migration strategy, scheduled for Thursday, extend this rhetoric.

So far, most of the focus has been on preventing embarkation of migrant boats from North Africa or other transit countries to Europe. Italy, for example, submitted a “Non Paper on Possible Involvement of Third Countries in Maritime Surveillance and Search and Rescue” in mid-March, saying, “We have to make all possible efforts to prevent the departure of migrants from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, primarily in order to stop this sequence of tragedies at sea.”

And while the rhetoric surrounding this is humanitarian, the proposal boils down to outsourcing migration control to governments in transit countries, providing them with patrol boats, surveillance technology, money and tools to boost their capacity to prevent migrants from leaving their shores. Put bluntly, it doesn’t take into account whether leaving migrants in Libya might expose them to danger.

Meanwhile, we are also hearing what appear to be humanitarian alternatives for “processing” refugee claims in North Africa. The details are scant, and we don’t know what North African government would be willing to be a holding center/dumping ground for Europe’s unwanted. But we need only look at the Australian model of diverting asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island and trying to resettle recognized refugees to Cambodia for an example of how things should not work. Or there is the U.S. model of interdiction, shipboard screening, and use of Guantanamo for processing asylum claims and holding refugees pending third-country resettlement.

The problem with such programs is that they institutionalize evasions of responsibility by countries with the legal infrastructure and wealth to provide decent reception conditions, fair assessment of asylum claims, and the ability to integrate refugees, who instead shunt asylum seekers off to countries that lack the capacity to protect and care for them.

Extraterritorial processing obviates many of the key legal obligations that become attached when an asylum seeker is physically on the territory of the country that decides the claim, such as not to return a refugee to persecution. External procedures transform a legal process into a political one, making it discretionary how many refugees a government chooses to admit, and the likelihood of protracted refugee warehousing in North Africa looms. Extraterritorial processing is not inherently rights-violating and could provide important benefits. But with EU states unbound by legal obligations to resettle refugees, the deck will likely be stacked against them.

So, what needs to change?

A real commitment to saving lives and protecting refugees would not focus on preventing departures or containing people fleeing conflict and persecution, but would start with restoring the Mediterranean search and rescue operation at least to its 2014 level. It would also begin with agreeing to fulfill the pleas of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for a modest program to resettle 130,000 of the most vulnerable 3.8 million Syrian refugees already languishing in the region.

Ideally, a shift in policy would also include equitable burden sharing within the EU itself, so that Italy, Malta, and other border states wouldn’t bear a disproportionate burden. In the longer term, an effective policy would involve capacity building in transit countries, not simply to enforce borders, but to provide real protection and decent living conditions.

And, ultimately, it would meaningfully address the root causes of forced displacement in a host of failed states that are hemorrhaging people: Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan…The list goes on.

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