EU Formulates Action Plan on Refugee Migration Crisis (5/19)     Print

By Laura Kayali, European Affairs Editorial Assistant

EU foreign and defense ministers agreed on May 18 to take military action and initiate a naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea, to destroy the vessels of migrants’ traffickers before they can launch more hazardous transports. Although High Representative Frederica Mogherini is still in talks with the UN to assess if such measures would be in accordance with international law, this decision embodies the EU’s readiness and willingness to tackle what Ban Ki-moon called “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II” – the issue of Mediterranean migrants.

For the last past years, Europe has become increasingly attractive to “complex population movements including refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants and other migrants.”[1] Syrian citizens fleeing their country’s bloody civil war account for one third [2], with the remaining majority being people trying to escape the growing unrest in Libya, the dictatorship in Eritrea or the extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. Those migrants are smuggled to Europe by boats leaving from Libya, Egypt or Turkey. Their final destination is most often the Italian island of Lampedusa, only 355 km north of Libya’s shores.

Southern Europe is indeed the region most impacted by the crisis. In 2014, 220,000 migrants illegally crossed the Mediterranean Sea. Among them, up to 3500 drowned before reaching the continent and this year, more than 1700 migrants have already perished at sea while trying to get across what is now the “deadliest border in the world.” These numbers are the more worrying as they are dramatically increasing. Less than two years ago the number of people smuggled to the Old Continent was four times lower – around 60,000, and of those 700 perished.

But it was last month, in April 2015, after a boat containing several hundreds of migrants sunk, that the European Union came under intense criticism for its alleged inaction and the lack of a unified European policy to prevent such disasters. Europe was held accountable for the tragedy by the media, public opinion, and sometimes even by national political figures. (The EU was hardly praised when it saved more than 5800 migrants two weeks later.)

“No country should be left alone to address huge migratory pressures” – Jean-Claude Juncker

In mid-May, the European Commission demonstrated its will to tackle the issue by presenting a European Agenda on Migration – a combination of “immediate actions” and longer-term solutions to manage immigration flows and alleviate the burden on Southern member states. Immediate actions include the tripling of Frontex’ capacities in order for its main operation Triton[3] to be effectively led. Frontex, a European agency established in 2004 to secure the external borders of the union, has been constrained because of a lack of financial and operational resources. In 2014, when Triton was launched to replace Mare Nostrum, its budget was three times lower than that of its’ Italian-funded predecessor. It is now expected to see its budget more than triple, from 2.9 to 9 million euros. The dismantling of smuggling networks is also at the core of the agenda. And to further relieve Italy and Greece, the European Commission plans to create a system of “relocation in emergency of mass influxes” by the end of 2015. The agenda stresses the need for a coordinated EU migration policy in the long run, which would revolve around four pillars.

First of all, it is paramount to reduce the incentive for illegal migration by “addressing [its] root causes.” “For as long as there is war and hardship in our neighborhood near and far, people will continue to seek a safe haven on European shores” stated the Commission in the aftermath of the April tragedy. Secondly, a more effective border management approach will be necessary to both prevent human disasters and secure maritime frontiers; and third a “strong common asylum policy” has to be decided in order for the European countries' response to the crisis to be coherent. Last, but not least, the Commission advocates for a “new policy on legal migration.” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is indeed in favor of facilitating legal immigration in order to counter the inexorable ageing of Europe’s native population - much to the dismay of most member states.

The European Agenda on Migration will be discussed by Interior Ministers in Luxembourg on June 15 and submitted for approval to EU leaders on June 30 during a European summit in Brussels. However, some Brussels officials are rather pessimistic. “This plan will most likely be butchered, as was the last one presented by the European Commission in December 2013,” a source told the AFP.

“The EU can do a lot, we will do a lot, but we cannot do it alone.” – Frederica Mogherini

Indeed, the Commission’s agenda is already being loudly criticized by several member states. The measure drawing the most attention, and the most criticism, is the “resettlement scheme to offer 20,000 places” to migrants “in clear need of international protection” over the next two years. These asylum seekers would be relocated in member states according to quotas based on size and economic growth. Germany, France and Italy would then be the main host countries, welcoming respectively 18,5%, 14% and 12% of the refugees. Great-Britain, Ireland and Denmark could decide not to participate to this mechanism if so they wished, due to their exemption from EU migration laws. Prominent national political figures have already made it clear the implementation of such a system is out of question. “Such an approach will only make our side of the Mediterranean more attractive and will encourage more people to put their lives at risk,” wrote British Home Secretary Theresa May in “The London Times” before the agenda was even unveiled. Other member states to the East are also firmly against this “resettlement scheme.” The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have publicly opposed it, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated that the very idea of quotas was “insane.” Even France, which was rumored to be on the same page as the European Commission on the issue, has turned against it. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on May 16 that “France had already done enough” – although he paradoxically advocated for a “more equitable” allocation of migrants in the EU.

Despite President Juncker’s criticism that leaders of EU Member states have shown a “lack of ambition and solidarity,” most European leaders have to deal with the rise of populism and the pressure of anti-immigration parties: it would be electorally risky for them to be perceived as being in favor of welcoming new migrants. And the EU cannot decide on anything without the approval of member states because, as French newspaper “Le Monde” reminded us, “in this particular matter, the European institutions are utterly powerless, and for a good reason: migration issues are not part of their jurisdiction.”

[1]Definition by the International Organization for Migration

[2]67,000 in 2014

[3]Triton is a border security operation led by Frontex and launched in November 2014. It replaced Mare Nostrum, a surveillance and rescuing program financed by Italy alone, when Rome could no longer afford to pay for it.