Jennifer Rankin and Patrick Wintour, The Guaradian, June 21, 2018
The European Union’s most senior migration official has admitted that no north African country has yet agreed to host migrant screening centres to process refugee claims.
Details of an EU plan to prevent migrants drowning at sea emerged on Thursday after Italy criticised the agenda of an emergency summit for not offering enough to help it cope with arrivals.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration, said the EU wanted to “intensify cooperation” with Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Niger and Morocco, as he announced the intention to create a “regional disembarkation scheme”.
So far no African country had agreed to host screening centres, he confirmed. “It has to be discussed with these countries, he said. “An official proposal has not been put on the table.”
The idea for offshore migrant processing centres remains sketchy, with numerous political, practical and legal questions unanswered. It remains unclear, for example, whether migrants on a rescue ship in European waters could be returned to a north African country.
Tahar Cherif, the Tunisian ambassador to the EU said: “The proposal was put to the head of our government a few months ago during a visit to Germany, it was also asked by Italy, and the answer is clear: no!
“We have neither the capacity nor the means to organise these detention centres. We are already suffering a lot from what is happening in Libya, which has been the effect of European action.”
He said his country was facing enough problems with unemployment, without wishing to add to them while Niger said its existing centres taking migrants out of detention camps in Libya are already full.
The idea for the centres was thrown into the mix of EU migration policy before a series of crucial summits on migration in the next week.
About 10 EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Sunday in a hastily convened emergency meeting aimed at preventing the collapse of the German coalition government.
But the Italian government has been angered by draft conclusions for the summit, which stress the need to counter “secondary movements” — an issue that affects Germany.
Under EU rules, a member state usually has responsibility for asylum seekers who have arrived in its territory, a regulation that has put frontline states Italy and Greece under huge pressure.
But claimants often move to a second EU state, seeking a faster decision or to unite with family members.
So-called “secondary movements” is the issue driving a wedge between Germany’s ruling coalition. The Bavarian CSU party has set the chancellor, Angela Merkel, a deadline of two weeks to find a solution. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, has threatened to send away migrants at the border — a breach of EU rules that threatens to unravel the common asylum system.
Tensions are running high after Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said he was not ready to discuss secondary movements “without having first tackled the emergency of ‘primary movements’ that Italy has ended up dealing with alone”.
Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, said: “If anyone in the EU thinks Italy should keep being a landing point and refugee camp, they have misunderstood.”
The election of a populist government in Italy, combined with tensions in Germany’s ruling coalition, has created a political storm over migration despite the sharp fall in arrivals. In the first six months of this year 15,570 people crossed into Italy, a 77% drop on last year.
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, reluctantly agreed to host the weekend summit to help Merkel, after her governing coalition came close to breaking point.
Avramopoulos stressed that the summit would be about “consultations” to prepare the ground for decisions to be taken by all 28 EU leaders at a European council meeting next Thursday.
Warning that the future of the EU’s border-free travel area was at stake, Avramopoulos said: “The European leadership of today will be held accountable in the eyes of future generations if we allow all these forces of populism to blow up what has been achieved”.