EU migration deal, is it the answer?

The new right-wing Italian government demanded the inclusion of 'offshore processing centres' for migrants. But can we still talk of a ‘migration crisis’ in the EU? Nando Sigona asks

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, left, speaks with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during an informal EU summit on migration at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 24 June 2018. Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Pool via Reuters

The European Council met in June to address the ‘migration crisis’, a few days earlier an ad hoc meeting was called by Jean-Pierre Juncker to ensure smooth proceeding and that Angela Merkel was to get support for a call for other member states to take more responsibility for the reception of migrants and refugees at a time in which her coalition government was in fibrillation. After a turbulent meeting that went on until the early hours, the European Council agreed eventually to a few measures, including creating ‘controlled centres’ on EU territory where asylum seekers are to be accommodated while their claim is assessed and ‘swiftly explore the concept of regional disembarkation platforms’. The latter solution is paved with multiple challenges – legal, geopolitical, ethical and logistical.

Offshore asylum processing centres are nothing new and periodically resurface in European political debate, particularly since the early 2000s. The then British Prime Minister Tony Blair was an early supporter of the idea of providing international protection in third countries so to contain economic costs and political backlash domestically. The concept at the time was met with enthusiasm by the Dutch government. Countries like Italy and Spain instead focused their efforts on a different type of border externalization. They signed bilateral agreements with countries like Libya and Morocco to facilitate the return of irregular travellers to ports of departure. Often these agreements involved funding the immigration enforcement apparatus of these countries, including the construction of detention facilities.

The latest incarnation of the regional processing hubs, while to a large extent just a rebranding of these past initiatives, is presented as a European version of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’, a controversial, but for some successful, policy launched by Australia in the early 2000s. The policy saw all asylum seekers who arrived by boat intercepted at sea and sent straight to offshore camps established on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island where their asylum claims are processed. Even in case of successful decision, transfer to Australia’s mainland is not guaranteed and not immediate. These developments are highly significant as they challenge fundamental features of the global refugee regime. By locating the provision of protection and asylum processing outside Europe, offshore policies circumvent states’ international obligations under the Geneva Convention.

The inclusion of offshore processing centres in the European Council’s conclusions was demanded by the new right-wing Italian coalition government that went as far as threatening to veto all meeting proceedings. Matteo Salvini, the right-wing Italian minister of home affairs and leader of the (Northern) League called it a victory. But it is likely to be a pyrrhic one. More seasoned EU politicians are familiar with the Pacific Solution, they first were charmed by it and considered implementing it in the Mediterranean, but eventually had to give up on the idea.

Crisis? What crisis?

Can we still talk of a ‘migration crisis’ in the EU? Sea arrivals are nothing like what we witnessed in 2015. Since March 2016 the Eastern Mediterranean route via Turkey is de facto closed. Due to the political instability in Libya, it took longer for the Central Mediterranean route to receive the same treatment. Substantial reduction of sea crossings and arrivals in Italy was recorded since August 2017. Despite this, the Italian government has made the war on smugglers and curbing arrivals a priority. Apparently this is what the Italian public demands, it doesn’t matter that data tells a different story.

At closer inspection, it transpires that rather than the new comers, Italians’ increasingly negative attitude towards migrants has less to do with new arrivals and much more with the lack of solutions for those already in the country, whose destitution in streets and piazzas is exacerbated by the deficiencies of the asylum reception system. At best a new comers, including recognized refugees, received accommodation for 12 months, after which they are expected to be self-reliant, but this is not often the case.

The blame for this situation, which contributed to the electoral victory of Matteo Salvini and M5S at the recent political election, is not only on the Italian government. Many EU states have sealed their borders and refused relocation but for few refugees. The EU relocation scheme that was designed to alleviate pressure on border member states, never really worked to capacity. Bureaucratically heavy and time-consuming, this scheme is guided by criteria that don’t fully suit the profile of sea arrivals in a country like Italy. A person familiar with the relocation scheme in Italy told me that to relocate a single individual in a Nordic country like Sweden could take months, repeated interviews and extreme background vetting. Clearly such a system which applies far more stringent criteria to relocated asylum seekers than to those who apply in the country directly, hardly serve the purpose of relieving the pressure of new arrivals from southern European states. More effective would have been at the time when arrivals were high that an automatic transfer mechanism was in place so that once disembarked in whichever Italian, Spanish or Greek port, the migrants were than distributed on a quota basis to other European states that would be in charge of assessing their asylum claim.

But this may not be necessary now, as there is no migration crisis if one looks at arrival and asylum application data. The issue that needs addressing is another one, one that is more complex and more politically charged: the integration of those who are already in the EU.

Hostile environment and deterrence policies, lack of housing and access to the job market and rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric signal instead a different reality. These policies not only feed moral panic among the voters, they also stigmatize migrants and make them feel alienated and unwelcome, disintegrating society instead.

Nando Sigona is Reader in International Migration and Forced Displacement at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is co-author (with Crawley, Duvell, Jones and McMahon) of Unravelling Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ (Policy Press, 2017) and (with Bloch and Zetter, Pluto, 2014) Sans Papiers. The social and economic lives of undocumented migrants. You can find Nando on Twitter at: @nandosigona