Monday 20 April 2015

Migrant deaths in the Mediterranean: What can the EU do?

Steve Peers

The latest tragedies in the Mediterranean add to the enormous and growing death toll of migrants crossing that sea. Today EU ministers will consider the issue as a matter of urgency, and the Commission is due to propose an EU strategy next month. Here are some thoughts as to what parts of the EU response should be.

First of all, it is necessary to reinstate a major search and rescue operation. The EU’s ‘Triton’ operation which replaced the Italian ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation from the end of last year is obviously inadequate as regards saving lives – which is not its main purpose in the first place. Equally the assumption that the termination of Mare Nostrum would reduce the number of migrants willing to undertake the Mediterranean crossing – and die in the attempt – was obviously mistaken.

The new operation need not be an EU operation as such, due to legal questions about how much the EU as such can set up a search and rescue operation. Possibly the EU, or at least a large group of its individual Member States, can contribute toward the coordination and funding of a joint operation, rather than leave this entirely up to the Italian government as before.

Secondly, the EU has an established system for border surveillance, known as Eurosur. Its main focus in border control but it has a subsidiary role as regards detecting migrants in need of rescue. It could be focussed more on the humanitarian aspect, if necessary by means of a rapid amendment to the legislation establishing it – or alternatively, if there are legal doubts about this, by a parallel agreement among the Member States.  

Thirdly, the EU should address the important role of the private rescue of migrants. At present, the EU Directive prohibiting the smuggling of migrants specifies that any assistance to irregular migrants is prohibited – even if the person or organisation concerned is not acting for profit. There is only an option for Member States to exempt humanitarian assistance from the prohibition. This legislation should be amended as soon as possible to make this exception mandatory, clarifying that this also exempts private sea vessels which assist those in need (in accordance with the law of the sea) also benefit from the exception. Private vessels which lose money as a result of offering assistance (for instance, because they were diverted from catching fish) should be compensated by national or EU funds if necessary. This amendment could be fast-tracked, pending a more comprehensive review of the legislation to consider the best criminal law response to smugglers and traffickers.

Fourthly, there is a need to address the situation in countries of origin and transit, so that fewer people feel the need to make this risky journey in the first place. This also takes account of realpolitik: it’s not socially, economically or politically feasible for the EU to offer protection to everyone in the world that needs it. Of course, solving the conflicts and poverty that cause desperate people to flee in the first place is far easier said than done. But it would certainly be possible to fully review EU foreign policies and development aid funding with a view to addressing the root causes of migration.

In terms of a legal response, there are several other external aspects of EU migration policy. For those who have a need for international protection, many already receive support or protection in neighbouring and transit countries, and the EU could step up its contribution to such assistance.  A proportion of the people concerned are already resettled by Member States, and the EU could increase its support for this resettlement process. It might be useful to amend EU asylum legislation to confirm that the persons concerned have refugee status in the Member States concerned, in accordance with the EU’s ‘Qualification Directive’, upon arrival.

There’s also an existing legal framework for Member States to consider applications for asylum lodged at their consulates in third (non-EU) countries. At the end of 2013, the EU’s main court (the CJEU) already ruled in the Koushkaki case that the EU’s current visa code requires Member States to issue visas to applicants if the criteria for issue are met. The visa code mainly applies to short-term visas, not visas for people who need long-term international protection. However, the code also provides for rules on the issue of a short-term visa with ‘limited territorial validity’ (LTV). These visas are not valid in all Schengen states, but rather valid usually in only the single Schengen State which issues them.  

According to the current visa code, an LTV visa ‘shall be issued…when the Member State concerned considers it necessary on humanitarian grounds, for reasons of national interest or because of international obligations’. The important point is that an LTV visa can be issued where the usual conditions for issuing a visa are not met, for instance where there is insufficient evidence of an intention to return to the country of origin. Obviously, where a person has a genuine protection need, a reluctance to return to her country of origin is perfectly understandable; indeed, it is built into the very definition of refugee or subsidiary protection status (ie a well-founded fear of suffering persecution or serious harm in that country).

It’s arguable the 2013 CJEU ruling in the Koushkaki judgment also applies to LTV visas, in light of the word ‘shall’. Admittedly, that word is then qualified by the words ‘considers it necessary’. But arguably, at least in cases involving a potential international protection need, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights requires that where a person applies for a visa from a (Schengen) Member State, the existence of such a need must be considered if it is alleged, and an LTV visa must be issued if such a protection need exists. It can hardly be denied that EU law (and therefore the Charter) applies whenever a third-country national applies for a visa from a Schengen Member State.

So the EU and its Member States could agree that this is the correct interpretation of the existing law, and take action to put it into effect, for instance adopting guidelines or standard rules for consulates on how to apply such obligations. EU funds could assist with any additional costs for Member States.

There’s also an immediate opportunity to address this issue by means of legislation, since proposed amendments to the visa code that would fully overhaul it are currently under discussion in the Council and the European Parliament (EP). These proposals raise many different issues, and the Council and EP are still at an early stage of discussing them. But it would be possible to split up the proposal and adopt an amendment to the LTV rules on a fast-track basis.

In a previous blog post, I suggested a simple amendment to the visa code to this end. This would simply amend the rules to state that an LTV visa ‘shall be issued…when it is necessary in order to ensure the international protection of the person concerned in accordance with Directive 2011/95 [the Qualification Directive], or when the Member State concerned considers it necessary…’.

In the longer term, other difficult and controversial aspects of an external protection policy could be developed. It would be possible to develop ‘joint external processing’ of asylum claims, as long as such processing in no way prejudices applications made at the border or on the territory of Member States, and entails the entry and stay of persons with international protection needs either on the territory of Member States, or on the territory of third countries which offer an equivalent level of protection. Nor should joint processing prejudice the resettlement of those groups of persons (such as Syrian refugees) whose need for international protection is obvious.

The problems associated with such joint processing should not deter the EU from taking the immediate steps outlined here that could reduce the death toll on the Mediterranean by stepping up rescue efforts and by giving more people with an established protection need a form of safe passage to the EU – either by means of resettlement of established refugees or assessment of asylum-seekers’ protection needs as an adjunct to the visa application process. There is a moral imperative for the EU to act swiftly and effectively to address the issue.

Photo credit: Daily Mail

Barnard & Peers: chapter 26


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