EU leaders shy away from revamping the asylum policy

Pro-migrant protestors. Brussels, 23 April. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

European heads of state and heads of government will meet this afternoon, 23 April, to agree on tougher measures to stem the flow of sinking refugee ships in the Mediterranean. But they are highly unlikely to make headway in introducing an element of “solidarity” in the Union’s asylum policy. EURACTIV France reports.

A year and a half after the Lampedusa drama, today’s extraordinary Council summit in Brussels will once again address the desperate situation of migrants in the Mediterranean. This issue is nothing new for the EU. But so far, the 28 country bloc has struggled to take decisive action.

Our French diplomatic source said, “These are long term issues that will not solve the immediate problem in the Mediterranean.”

Countries on the front line of the migrant crisis, such as Italy, have long criticised the Dublin II Regulation, which stipulates that asylum applications must be processed in the member state where they are lodged.

>> Read: MEP: Dublin II migrant law is killing European solidarity

But despite its numerous opponents in the Council, the Dublin II Regulation is not currently up for renegotiation.

The flood of migrant arrivals has highlighted cracks in European solidarity, particularly on the issue of repatriation. A “pilot project” to repatriate 5,000 Syrian asylum seekers will be voted on by the Council, but its passage is far from guaranteed.

Refugee camps?

Italian media have reported that Rome was considering proposing that refugee camps, under UN auspices, be set up in Niger, Tunisia and Sudan. Migrant applications for refugee status would be handled there.

“We are aware of the idea”, Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said today, adding that contacts in this respect with UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees, have already been established and that talks were ongoing.

The Council will also discuss how to tackle the traffickers that put people on unsafe, overcrowded boats that head out into the Mediterranean. “The EU will look into all possible ways to fight this organised crime,” a French diplomat said.

The European heads of state and government will discuss increasing border patrols and the means to combat trafficking.

At the centre of the debate is a ten-point action plan, already supported by EU foreign and home affairs ministers, to address the crisis.

Strengthening Triton

The priority of the plan currently under discussion is to bolster the operational and financial resources of Operation Triton, the joint European coastal surveillance programme that took over from the Italian Mare Nostrum operation in 2014.

Since the deployment of the operation led by Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, the number of deaths in the Mediterranean has dramatically increased, casting serious doubt over the adequacy of its resources.

>> Read: EU’s Operation Triton to help Italy cope with migrants

After the recent sinking of a trawler that killed 900 migrants, the International Organisation for Migration (OIM) has put the death toll at 1,800 so far this year, while the UN estimates that a total of 35,000 people have attempted to cross the Mediterranean.

“The 2015 death toll now is more than 30 times last year’s total at this date (April 21), when just 56 deaths of migrants were reported in the Mediterranean,” the IOM stated

Insufficient resources

The European Commission believes the that key to improving operation Triton’s effectiveness is to double its budget. This increase in expenditure, which the 28 national leaders are expected to ratify, would demand a greater contribution from each member state in terms of expert consultation, surveillance equipment, ships, aeroplanes etc.

Operation Triton has so far received significantly less funding than its Italian predecessor, with a budget of only €2.8 million per month, compared to Mare Nostrum’s €9.5 million.

The scope of the EU effort is also narrower. European boats can only patrol within a 30 mile perimeter of the EU landmass, which concentrates their activity along the Italian and Maltese coasts, far from the Libyan waters where most of the fatal shipwrecks occur.

The action plan proposes to broaden the range of the European mission, a suggestion that could face resistance from certain member states over fears that providing a more extensive safety net could encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing.

>> Read: Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

Destroying the traffickers’ boats is one response up for consideration under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Supported by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a military operation could include targeted strikes on traffickers in Libya, the main transit country for EU-bound migrants.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via Mediterranean.

>> Read: Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year

The chaotic situation in Libya has sparked a rise in migrant boats setting out for Europe from its unpoliced ports carrying refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

In 2013, Italy’s previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea" after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa.

But Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of €9 million a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

That made way for the European Union's border control mission, Triton. However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticised by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.

>> Read: Italy pushes 'Frontex Plus' to tackle migration crisis

  • 23 April: emergency summit on migrant crisis

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