All indications are that the onset of calmer waters on the Mediterranean will lead even more people to attempt the crossing this year than did in 2014, when over 170,000 reached Italy’s shores alone. As conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere rage on, over 8,000 migrants and asylum seekers arrived by sea in the first two months of 2015 compared to 5,500 during the same period last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Amid a growing sense of alarm, particularly among EU “frontline” states such as Italy and Greece, which receive the vast majority of sea arrivals, some European officials have renewed their enthusiasm for an old proposal to process migrants and asylum seekers outside the EU.
Germany’s Interior Minister was among the first to dust off the idea of setting up asylum centres in North Africa and Italy took up the proposal at a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels last week. The EU’s home affairs commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos told reporters afterwards that he would be visiting Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco “in order to create a zone in the area” to counter smuggling and irregular migration.
“It's about a humanitarian mission which would allow Europe to do screening and to dismantle a huge human trafficking market," Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, explained.
The proposal is being sold as a way to reduce the flow of migrants and asylum seekers embarking on perilous journeys to Europe by offering them legal ways to apply for visas or asylum in transit and origin countries.
However, there are lessons to be learned here from Australia, where offshore processing began, ostensibly at least, as a way to ensure fair distribution of resettlement places; it has now overtly become a policy aimed at deterring migrants and refugees from ever reaching Australian soil.
Australia started down the road of offshore processing more than 10 years ago when it began transferring asylum seekers intercepted at sea to detention centres on Nauru and Manus Islands. Measures implemented since then have become increasingly draconian and the evidence of human rights abuses at the offshore processing centres has piled up.
Canberra ignored warnings from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that it was flouting its obligation as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention to ensure people can access asylum, and recently wrote those obligations out of its domestic migration laws.
In late 2013, Australia launched a military-led operation that has intercepted and turned back almost every boat carrying asylum seekers from Indonesia. Those detained on Nauru and Manu who are eventually recognized as refugees, can now only be resettled in Papua New Guinea, Nauru or Cambodia, according to bilateral agreements Australia has made with those countries.
“It’s become an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy,” said Melissa Phillips, a migration researcher with the University of Melbourne. “If you follow the logic of Australia’s policy, then you are going down a slippery slope.”
There is no indication that Europe intends to follow Australia’s lead and intercept boats and send migrants to third countries for detention or processing of asylum applications. But public pressure on European governments to deter new arrivals is increasing – be it by detaining migrants or tightening borders.
However, different countries have different priorities and agendas when it comes to migration, and a system of processing asylum seekers in non-EU countries would depend on an agreement among member states about how recognized refugees would be distributed across the EU. Considering that a Common European Asylum Policy is still something of a pipedream and even the resettlement of Syrian refugees has been extremely uneven, it seems unlikely that member states will reach a consensus on this particular point.
There are a number of other practical hurdles to setting up offshore reception centres, not least the question of their location. As the majority of boat departures in the past year have been from Libya, locating processing centres there would make sense except that Libya is in the midst of a violent conflict that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco are potential candidates, judging by the EU home affairs commissioner’s remarks, but all three have worrying human rights records. How will the EU ensure that whichever country or countries end up hosting the reception centres, it runs them in compliance with international and EU refugee and human rights laws?
The legitimacy and legality of the policy would depend to a large extent on endorsement and technical assistance from UNHCR. William Spindler, a spokesperson for UNHCR, told IRIN that although the refugee agency has not ruled out third-country processing of asylum claims through multilateral arrangements “in exceptional circumstances” and “subject to appropriate safeguards”, “UNHCR’s position is that asylum seekers should normally be processed in the territory of the State in which they arrive.”
He added that UNHCR is advocating for offering other legal avenues for those seeking international protection in the EU such as humanitarian visa schemes, extended family reunification and increased resettlement places more evenly distributed across member states.
Migration researcher Nando Sigona who is based at the University of Birmingham, noted in a recent blog that “proposals like this are easier to write on paper than implement in practice and would require a significant devolvement of financial and human resources”.
“It is over ten years that similar proposals championing externalisation of asylum processing are on the table but they never fully reach implementation stage,” he added.
The current sense of urgency driving EU migration policy may be enough to get the current proposal off the drawing board. If so, will Europe avoid Australia’s “slippery slope”?