The “lack of new ideas” offered by the EU and national governments to deal with migration is “the real crisis”, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday (19 September), following the recent spike in arrivals to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Lampedusa on Sunday after a week in which more than 8,500 people from around 200 boats arrived, and presented a 10-point plan for dealing with migration.
On Monday, the government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has made cutting migrant numbers one of her government’s main priorities, extended the amount of time migrants can be detained to the EU maximum of 18 months. It also plans to increase the number of detention centres, and has mooted the prospect of a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent boats setting sail for Europe.
Von der Leyen’s plan pledged to reinforce the presence of the EU agencies on the ground, boost the fight against human smugglers, speed up returns, prevent departures through agreements with third countries and accelerate the implementation of the memorandum of understanding with Tunisia.
However, Human Rights Watch (HRW) associate director Judith Sunderland was critical of the EU executive’s response.
“The Commission’s plan includes staples of the EU’s failed approach: throwing money at countries like Tunisia and Libya to prevent departures, cracking down on smuggling networks, increased surveillance, accelerated asylum procedures to swiftly deny protection and send people away, and futile information campaigns to discourage people from getting on unsafe boats,” Sunderland said.
Lampedusa, a small island near Sicily, is one of the closest EU points to the Tunisian city of Sfax, from which, in the latest months, most of the people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea departed. While only roughly 180km apart, the journey between Sfax and Lampedusa remains extremely dangerous due to shoals and the makeshift boats often used for crossings.
“None of these approaches have stopped people attempting the dangerous journey or addressed the root causes of displacement and migration. Some have instead increased the danger,” Sunderland said.
One proposal was for a European naval mission to be deployed in the south Mediterranean Sea to prevent boats from leaving North Africa.
About the naval mission, Sunderland said that it is “an alarming reference to Meloni’s proposal for a naval blockade,” referring to recent declarations by the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
“This is coupled with the proposal to speed up support for the Tunisian coast guard and ‘other law enforcement authorities,’ revealing again the EU’s emphasis on border security over saving lives, and its dogged insistence on propping up Libyan forces despite well-documented abuses amounting to crimes against humanity,” she added.
In recent years, the Commission has invested significant energy and financial resources in projects to fund third countries, such as Libya and Tunisia, to reinforce border control and prevent departures. However, this has not prevented a steady increase in arrivals.
In July, the Commission signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia, promising some funded projects and money in exchange for a decrease in departures.
But a handful of EU governments are unhappy about the procedures used to draw up the memorandum, because according to them, the Commission did not follow the adequate legal procedures to sign it, the Italian media La Stampa reported on Monday.
Similar agreements are foreseen with other North African countries, such as Egypt, the Commission confirmed during a press conference on Monday.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald/Benjamin Fox]
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