The EU’s ‘disappointing’ response to the migration crisis

A closer look at the list of commitments from Europe’s leaders after their hastily-arranged migrant crisis summit in Brussels reveals no substantial change in response and few measures likely to have any major impact on the flows of migrants and asylum-seekers trying to reach Europe.

The outcome had already been sketched out in a draft plan released on Monday, making Thursday’s meeting seem like little more than a public relations exercise.

Leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the cameras, promising ships and helicopters to boost search-and-rescue capacity, while the European Council pledged to triple funding for the European Union’s Operation Triton.

But what new plans, if any, came out of the meeting, and are they likely to stem the growing crisis?

With the help of migration and refugee experts, IRIN has unpacked the main resolutions and analysed what effect they might have:

Ramp up search-and-rescue

Operation Mare Nostrum, Italy’s search-and-rescue effort, which ran from October 2013 until November 2014, was widely seen as effective. However, it relied heavily on one member state and closed down when no more EU funds were forthcoming.

The EU’s Frontex border agency took over the role late last year but its operation was heavily criticised by aid groups for its focus on border control over search-and-rescue.

Predictions that many migrant lives would be lost unless a real replacement for Mare Nostrum was found have come all too true. 

The deaths of 1,750 migrants in the Mediterranean since the start of the year is 30 times higher than during the same period in 2014, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The pledge, therefore, to substantially increase resources and expand the mandate for Operation Triton was widely welcomed.

“The positive thing is that at the highest political level, there is recognition that [search-and-rescue] is within the mandate of Frontex,” said Kris Pollet, senior legal and policy officer with Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

Britain’s pledge of ships and helicopters is particularly noteworthy considering that last October, the Foreign Office publicly refused to support search-and-rescue operations, arguing that they were a pull factor that encouraged more migrants to attempt sea crossings to Europe.

While ramping up search-and-rescue was largely seen as a positive step, experts are quick to point out that it does not address the root causes of the migration crisis.

Target smugglers

Tough new measures to combat migrant smugglers include: “systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used,” bringing perpetrators to justice, launching a civil-military operation, and taking down online ads by smugglers attempting to drum up business.

Tuesday Reitano, head of the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, argues that most of these initiatives have come too late to have any real impact on a problem that has been allowed to fester. 

“It is a much more complex problem to solve now than it would have been even a year ago,” she told IRIN. “Smugglers have managed to put down roots and tentacles that are very far spread. Existing networks are encouraging a lot of new migration, which is witnessed by the diversity of nationalities arriving in Europe.

"We have evidence that there are now containers full of rubber dinghies being bought in Asia and shipped to Libya"

“Bombing or sinking boats is going to do nothing,” she added. “We have evidence that there are now containers full of rubber dinghies being bought in Asia and shipped to Libya. The dinghies are less safe, and infinitely replaceable.”

A United Nations Security Council resolution that would allow a civil military operation to patrol Libyan waters might enable some low-level smugglers to be caught and arrested, “but prosecuting traffickers isn’t as easy as it looks,” said Reitano, who warned that the kingpins controlling the increasingly professional and adaptable smuggling networks would continue operating.

While the use of social media by smugglers has played a role in terms of finding Syrian clients, Africans have long turned to locally known recruiters when planning to migrate. The difference now, according to Reitano, is that instead of paying a smuggler a few hundred dollars to do just one leg of the journey and then working and saving for the next leg, smugglers are encouraging would-be migrants to pay a one-off sum of around $1,500 to go all the way to Italy. 

“They’re trying to get as much cash up-front as possible, then along the way they ask for more money and tell the family to send more. Essentially it’s almost hostage taking,” she told IRIN.

Targeting smugglers also does nothing to reduce the demand for their services, which is only likely to increase with growing crises in Yemen and Nigeria. 

Stop them coming

Measures such as increasing cooperation with African partners by helping them to better control their land and sea borders are mainly designed to ensure that migrants never reach European shores.

Readmission agreements that allow the EU to return irregular migrants to countries at its borders such as Turkey and Tunisia are already in place, as are various initiatives to work with African countries, such as the Khartoum Process. “It’s building on what’s already there, but it’s this one-sided approach of stemming the flow towards Europe and shifting the burden to countries on the migratory route and making them responsible for stopping them getting to Europe,” said Pollet of ECRE.

“If this isn’t combined with a clear commitment to do our share and take in more people, that’s obviously not going to work.” 

No increase in refugee resettlement  

Far from making a commitment to accept significantly higher numbers of refugees through resettlement as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, had urged ahead of the meeting, the EU pledged only to set up a voluntary pilot project.

An earlier draft of the statement had offered a very modest 5,000 resettlement places, but the final draft contained no figure at all.

A programme to relocate asylum-seekers from over-burdened frontline states like Italy and Greece to other member states would be on a voluntary basis and is still being considered.

“For us, that’s the big disappointment,” said Pollet. “We weren’t expecting them to pledge to take in 500,000 people, but at the beginning of the week there was this sense of urgency.”

Stefan Kessler, senior policy officer with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe, described the lack of a commitment on resettlement as particularly disappointing.

“Overall, the clear message from this meeting is: ‘Keep protection-seekers far, far away from Europe so that their deaths don’t make the headlines in European media,’” he told IRIN.

Send them home

A new programme “for the rapid return of illegal migrants from frontline member states” is to be coordinated by Frontex. 

Pollet pointed out that organising return flights for deportees is nothing new for Frontex, and Reitano noted that Italy has also been actively returning large numbers of economic migrants in recent months.

“This is clearly there to be seen as being tough and determined; sending a signal not to come over here because we’ll send you back,” said Pollet.

“The reality is that the vast majority arriving are those with protection needs – Eritreans, Somalis, Syrians.” 

Jeff Crisp, former head of policy and evaluation at UNHCR and now an advisor with Refugees International, also noted the document’s “complete failure to acknowledge that many of the asylum-seekers originating from countries such as Eritrea, Somalia and Syria have a very strong claim to refugee status.”

Next steps

Pollet described the EU Council statement as the “immediate political response” to the migration crisis. A more substantial document containing longer-term measures is expected when the EU Commission releases its new EU agenda on migration in mid-May.

“It’s very unclear what is going to come out of that and how much this meeting is going to influence the tone and approach taken by the Commission,” he said.

What is clear is that Europe’s migration crisis is not going away anytime soon. 

“It’s hard to say the picture looks rosy in any way,” said Reitano. “Yemen is going to make it worse, Boko Haram (the Nigerian Islamist group) is going to make it worse.

“There are too many markets right now of instability and poverty and human rights abuses to dry up the supply.”