Thursday 23 April 2015

Don’t Rock the Boat: EU leaders do as little as possible to address the migrant crisis


Steve Peers


Yesterday the EU leaders, in the European Council, adopted a policy for addressing the recent crisis of large-scale migrant death tolls crossing the Mediterranean. It builds upon the recent 10-point plan adopted by ministers (discussed here), but builds upon it in some respects. There were also some interesting last-minute changes to the earlier draft of the text (all of which are shown in the annex below), indicating leaders’ real priorities.



Detailed comments


At first sight, the leaders’ statement shows more compassion than the 10-point plan, referring to the huge loss of life as a ‘tragedy’ and stating an immediate priority to ‘prevent more people from dying at sea’. To this end, there is a specific commitment to triple the funds for ‘search and rescue’ as regards existing EU operations. However, this is only ‘within the mandate of Frontex’ – and the head of the EU border agency has stated that this agency does not really have a search and rescue role.


It should be noted that since these operations are coordinated by Frontex, detailed rules of EU law will apply (discussed here) will apply. These rules do allow, in some cases, for returns of migrants directly from their rescue to non-EU countries – as long as those countries are safe. It is unlikely that in the current situation, Libya would qualify as safe.


The destruction of traffickers’ vessels ‘before they are used by traffickers’ seems to suggest some Minority Report style precognisance of the future use of the boats, considering that traffickers do not paint logos on the side of their boats like ferries or shipping companies. This is also qualified by a reference to compliance with international law. It may be questioned whether this action will legally be a foreign policy operation (as the leaders assume), given the approach to EU law taken in a recent CJEU opinion concerning the EU’s anti-pirates operation (discussed here).


As compared to the 10-point plan, there is a reference to Interception of communications, and a very brief reference to the root causes of the problem (conflict in countries of origin, as well as Libya). The EU leaders took out a reference to stopping migrants making it to the Mediterranean shores, but it’s obvious that this is the main intention of stepping up cooperation with sub-Saharan countries.


There’s an added stress on readmission treaties, including with countries of transit; this refers implicitly to EU readmission treaties with North African states (not Libya) currently under negotiation. There are also two added references to the right to asylum and EU asylum law, confirming that the EU leaders do not intend to simply return migrants without considering their claims. Some press reports had erroneously suggested an intention to return many thousands of migrants without considering claims, but if migrants make it to EU waters or land, it would be illegal to return them without examining their claims under EU law. Migrants can be returned to countries of origin or transit if their asylum claims are unfounded, as long as those countries are safe. Again, returning migrants to Libya would, under current circumstances, breach EU and human rights law as long as that country does not appear safe.


As compared to the 10-point plan, it appears that the intention is not to fingerprint all migrants, but only those applying for asylum; this simply re-iterates long-standing EU law. More generally, the plan says little about safe passage, removing the original (and puny) target number of 5,000 resettlement places, and not referring to other forms of safe passage instead. (While it would be difficult to issue humanitarian visas in Libya, it would be possible to offer this option - discussed further here - in other States). Equally, there is little practical solidarity with frontline states; other Member States offer cash and help with processing and return, but weakened any significant commitment to relocate people from those frontline States.


There is an immediate commitment to issue a ‘roadmap’ next week, pre-empting the Commission’s agenda-setting role (its strategy paper is due in May). However, the role of the European Parliament may still prove significant, since it must approve any funding decisions or changes in legislation.




Overall, the new commitment to search and rescue is welcome, although it is qualified in light of Frontex’s limited powers.  The desire to address root causes is good but seems half-hearted, and this is easier said than done. A more ambitious strategy regarding the processing of asylum claims in non-EU transit states is probably necessary in the medium term, but neither the EU leaders nor asylum NGOs want to swallow this bitter pill for the time being. The destruction of traffickers’ boats is subject to legal and practical constraints, and will be almost literally a drop in the ocean. The summit result is frankly pathetic as regards safe passage of migrants, ensuring that they avoid the risk of the crossing altogether, and it is marginal as regards assistance to frontline Member States.


On the whole, it seems that the leaders want to do as little as possible to change the current approach to dealing with the crisis. Similar to their method of dealing with the euro crisis, this looks like a short-term patch-up that offers less than first appears, which will probably have to be revisited soon.



Photo credit: Kenneth Roth


Barnard & Peers: chapter 26





Special meeting of the European Council, 23 April 2015 - statement

[note: changes from the earlier draft are noted by underling for additions of text, and strike-out for removals of text] 


1. The situation in the Mediterranean is a tragedy. The European Union will mobilise all efforts at its disposal to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency that we face, in cooperation with the countries of origin and transit. Our immediate priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea.


2. We have therefore decided to strengthen our presence at sea, to fight the traffickers, to prevent illegal migration flows and to reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility. Given that instability in Libya creates an ideal environment for the criminal activities of traffickers, we will actively support all UN-led efforts towards re-establishing government authority in Libya. We will also step up efforts to address conflict and instability as key push factors of migration, including in Syria.


3. We today commit to:


Strengthening our presence at sea


a) rapidly reinforce EU Operations Triton and Poseidon by at least doubling tripling the financial resources for this purpose in 2015 and 2016 and reinforcing the number of assets, thus allowing to increase the search and rescue possibilities within the mandate of FRONTEX. We welcome the commitments already made by Member States which will allow to reach this objective in the coming weeks;


Fighting traffickers in accordance with international law


b) disrupt trafficking networks, bring the perpetrators to justice and seize their assets, through swift action by Member State authorities in co-operation with EUROPOL, FRONTEX, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and EUROJUST, as well as through increased intelligence and police-cooperation with third countries;


c) undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers;


d) at the same time, the High Representative is invited to immediately begin preparations for a possible CSDP operation to this effect, in accordance with international law;


e) use EUROPOL to detect and request removal of internet content used by traffickers to attract migrants and refugees, in accordance with national constitutions;


Preventing illegal migration flows


f) increase support to Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Niger among others, to monitor and control the land borders and routes in order to prevent potential migrants from gaining access to Mediterranean shores, building on current CSDP operations in the region, as well as on regional cooperation frameworks (Rabat and Khartoum processes); step up dialogue with the African Union at all levels on all these issues;


g) reinforce our political cooperation with African partners at all levels in order to tackle the cause of illegal migration and combat the smuggling and trafficking of human beings. The EU will raise these issues with the African Union and the key countries concerned, with whom it will propose the holding of a summit in Malta in the coming months;


h) step up cooperation with Turkey in view of the situation in Syria and Iraq;


i) deploy European migration liaison officers in key countries to gather information on migratory flows, co-ordinate with national liaison officers, and co-operate directly with the local authorities;


j) work with regional partners in building capacity for maritime border management and search and rescue operations;


k) launch Regional Development and Protection programmes for North Africa and the Horn of Africa;


l) invite the Commission and the High Representative to mobilise all tools, including through development cooperation and the implementation of EU and national readmission agreements with third countries, to promote readmission of unauthorised economic migrants to countries of origin and transit, working closely with the International Organisation for Migration;


m) while respecting the right to seek asylum, set up a new return programme for the rapid return of illegal migrants from frontline Member States, coordinated by FRONTEX;


Reinforcing internal solidarity and responsibility


n) rapid and full transposition and effective implementation of the Common European Asylum System by all participating Member States, thereby ensuring common European standards under existing legislation;


o) increase emergency aid to frontline Member States and consider options for organising emergency relocation between all Member States on a voluntary basis;


p) deploy EASO teams in frontline Member States for joint processing of asylum applications, including registration and finger-printing;


q) set up a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement across the EU, offering at least 5,000 places to persons qualifying for protection.


4. The EU institutions and the Member States will work immediately on the full implementation of these orientations. The Presidency and the Commission will present next week a roadmap setting out work up to June.


5. The European Council looks forward to the Commission Communication on a European Agenda for Migration, in order to develop a more systemic and geographically comprehensive approach to migration. The European Council will remain seized of the situation and will closely monitor the implementation of these orientations. The Council and the Commission will report to the European Council in June.


  1. I have difficulties in understanding why the EU has not adopted so far a mass influx declaration. Wouldn't this be the moment to do it?

    1. A mass influx declaration would lead to the application of the temporary protection directive. I imagine it has not been used because while it may be good policy to openly accept thousands of migrants so that they don't have to risk the Mediterranean crossing, it's bad politics.

    2. But In what way is it bad polics? They've talked about pilot programme on ressetlement.. would this be that different?

    3. But they took out the target of 5000 resettled refugees. Temporary protection would probably entail more people than that.

    4. Steve, What you are saying is instead of allowing 5000 asylum seeker migrate to EU, better to wait for them board the trafficker’s boat, watch 4500 drown and then speed rescue the remaining 500—heroic act—better politics…We get it!!

    5. I believe they dropped that proposal... The conclusions of the European Council did not mention any number specifically... They are indeed very abstract. I believe that in the 13th May the Commission will present a more specific approach. But I doubt that they'll have the courage to make use of the temporary protection directive...

    6. I agree that the temporary protection Directive would be a good idea, it's unfortunate that we have got to the state in EU politics where it's unrealistic to consider it.

    7. Ak X, that's not at all what I am saying, you need to read my comments more carefully.

  2. Reinforcing the search and rescue (SAR) capacities within the mandate of FRONTEX is not a solution aimed to give an answer to all the questions related to illicit traffic of migrants by sea. EU countries in my opinion have to share the employment of their naval assets: a) to establish an effective SAR service in the "black hole" of the theoretical Libyan SAR zone (but the "place of safety" should be separated by the place of asylum's request); b) to launch a CSDP naval operation based on a mandate of MLE against the migrants smuggling and the traffic of human beings.

  3. Very sad, but not unexpected. Unfortunately, we are getting used to this great injustice to migrants and situations within their countries or origin.