Plan to ‘outsource’ asylum centres to Africa has Malta’s support

Frustrated by its inability to handle the migration wave, the EU has sought to tackle the problem at its source, mainly in Africa.

File photo shows a 12-year-old unaccompanied minor watching a game of football at a site for Somalis and Eritreans in Tripoli, Libya. Photo: UNHCR/L.Dobbs
File photo shows a 12-year-old unaccompanied minor watching a game of football at a site for Somalis and Eritreans in Tripoli, Libya. Photo: UNHCR/L.Dobbs

Malta is “positively considering” an Italian proposal for the establishment of asylum processing centres outside the European Union, the home affairs minister has told MaltaToday.

Carmelo Abela said that the proposal, suggested in a so-called ‘non paper’ by the Italian government, “would require an in-depth discussion at EU level” although Malta is said to be supporting the idea.

Frustrated by its inability to handle the migration wave, the EU has sought to tackle the problem at its source, mainly in Africa.

The Italian proposal is to involve countries like Tunisia and Egypt in the search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, and to assist in setting up centres in North Africa to process asylum claims in a bid to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to Europe.

In 2014, over 170,000 people departed from Libya and were rescued at sea by the Italian navy’s Operation Mare Nostrum. In the first two months of 2015, despite the end of Mare Nostrum, irregular migrants arriving so far are close to twice the number in the same period of last year – 7,822 compared to 4,548.

Over 3,500 are believed to have lost their lives in the Mediterranean.

The EU wants to persuade Niger, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey to pre-screen migrants and has launched a pilot project to send immigration officers abroad to help assess asylum demands.

Britain is reported to be strongly opposed to processing asylum applications outside the EU because such a system would require an agreed EU system for dividing the refugee arrivals between the 28 countries.

On the other hand, Austria supports such a system for precisely the opposite reason, believing that an EU burden-sharing system would cut the numbers of refugees arriving there.

Malta too is a supporter of the plan: Carmelo Abela said that Malta remains committed that persons rescued at sea are escorted to the nearest safe port, keeping with maritime law principles to give assistance to castaways as soon as practicably possible.

“Maritime surveillance in third countries’ territorial waters and other waters otherwise falling under their competence in terms of international law falls outside the competence of the Maltese government, which exercises its international obligations within those waters falling under its competence or as otherwise permissible in terms of international law,” Abela said.

The Italians believe that by pushing the asylum process into African countries, fewer migrants would be willing to risk the treacherous Mediterranean crossing. “This will bring about the downscaling of this phenomenon in mid-long terms.”

Outsourcing rescue missions

The Italians say that the current situation is so serious “that a radical change in the EU perspective is required”.

But despite having made “all possible efforts to prevent the departure of migrants”, Italy wants to explore the direct involvement of reliable third countries in maritime surveillance and search and rescue activity. According to the non paper:

“The objective should be to share such a heavy burden with those third countries, which intend to commit themselves by taking their part of responsibility in the management of this unprecedented migratory and humanitarian emergency that is taking place in our common Mediterranean region…

“In concrete terms, ad hoc operational cooperation mechanisms in the field of maritime surveillance and search and rescue should be put into place. Based on that, upon request of the Italian authorities and where feasible, naval units from those third countries, which are responsible for SAR areas close to Libya’s, could intervene and rescue migrants in distress at sea. Afterwards, they could take them to their own ports, in accordance with the principle of ‘place of safety’, as foreseen by the Law of the Sea.”

According to the Italian government, the proposal has already been bilaterally explored, but it said that a “joint diplomatic action” towards the governments of Egypt and Tunisia by main member states and the EU as a whole was “crucial”.

That would also mean financing and technical assistance, as well as expertise from the United Nations’ refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration, to help these countries deal with the influx of different categories of migrants and asylum seekers, and to offer them protection or return them to their country of origin.

“This approach, based on an effective responsibility sharing between the EU and third countries concerned, should be developed, of course, in full compliance with the EU and international legal framework. In any case, it necessarily implies a serious and strong commitment of member states and the EU as a whole in enhancing the institutional and operational capacity of the partners,” the non paper reads.

‘Dangerous approach’

But Africa’s envoy to the EU – African Union Ambassador Ajay Kumar Bramdeo – says that the plan to process migrants inside their countries is a “dangerous approach” to the migration phenomenon.

He told EU lawmakers that by outsourcing migrant management, the EU would be “shirking its own responsibility in receiving refugees and migrants, also in footing the bill for managing and controlling migration.”

The head of the International Organization for Migration’s EU office, Eugenio Ambrosi, cautioned against any rush to set up processing centres. “The priority has to be about protecting people and not protecting borders,” he said. “It’s a little bizarre that we ask other countries outside Europe to show solidarity toward Europe in sharing the burden when within Europe we still haven’t got there,” he said.

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