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The EU has outsourced much of its migration policy to a fleet of private boats that search Mediterranean waters for asylum seekers in crisis.
In recent weeks, these boats – run by various NGOs that are not directly controlled by any specific government – have become the focal point of a growing storm over migration as countries worry about a new influx of people and bicker over where they should be placed. the EU.
And increasingly, it seems that sniping at how these NGOs should operate has proven a more manageable target for officials than harmonizing outdated and fractured EU asylum rules.
On the one hand, Italy has led a coalition of southern European countries arguing that NGO boats actually encourage asylum seekers and should be more closely tied to the (often distant) country where they are registered. .
On the other side are countries like Germany, where many of these NGOs are registered. They fear that the countries of the South really want to expel the NGO boats.
The EU, for its part, is simply encouraging countries to address the issue, saying that Brussels cannot legally create its own rules on the matter.
If countries can develop “a more structured framework like a code of conduct, yes, we will support it,” said Margaritis Schinas, a senior European Commission official who coordinates EU migration work, before meeting ministers for inside Friday.
The result, intentional or not, is that NGO boats are now, in fact, at the center of EU migration policy – a development that has baffled the organizations themselves.
“Outsourcing migration,” said Stephanie Pope, EU migration expert with humanitarian organization Oxfam, “is a distraction from the problem at hand, which is that member states and EU institutions EU have consistently failed to…agree on a fair and effective sharing of responsibilities. mechanism.”
Growing concerns over migration
The NGO debate comes as EU asylum claims hit their highest monthly level since 2016. Diplomats also fear millions more Ukrainians are on the way as Russia attacks the power grid of the country in a context of falling temperatures. Already, 1.5 million Ukrainians are in Poland and more than 800,000 in Germany.
But attention turned to the NGO boats earlier this month when Italy’s new right-wing government refused to let a private ship unload its rescued migrants. Instead, the boat had to go to France, where the organization was registered.
The move sparked acrimony between Rome and Paris. While France agreed to accept the ship, citing humanitarian concerns, it then suspended a deal to voluntarily relocate asylum seekers from Italy. France and the Commission accused Rome of not respecting international law.
The issue has since morphed into a wider debate within the EU over the growing number of asylum seekers arriving in the central Mediterranean from countries such as Libya and Tunisia – at least 90,000 so far , more than 50% more than last year.
Yet much of this conversation has focused on NGOs.
In a joint statement two weeks ago, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta accused NGOs of operating “in an uncoordinated manner”.
The group argued that “the modus operandi of these private vessels is not in line with the spirit of the international legal framework”. And they called on the “flag state” of each NGO boat – the country where the vessel is registered – to “take responsibility” for the rescued migrants.
Germany pushed back the sentiment. On Twitter, the country’s Italian ambassador, Viktor Elbling, claimed the organizations were just filling a vacuum created by EU countries.
“In 2022, more than 1,300 people have already died or gone missing in the Mediterranean,” he added. tweeted. “12% of survivors were rescued by NGOs.
He added: “They are saving lives where state help is lacking.” Italian officials reject this characterization, pointing out that the Italian coast guard rescues the vast majority of migrants in peril.
Italy and migration extremists have also accused the NGO boats of essentially encouraging human trafficking and possibly even colluding with migrant smugglers.
NGOs have repeatedly and vehemently denied these allegations.
“Civil rescue organizations have no contact with smugglers and their networks,” said Susanne Jacoby, spokesperson for German NGO United4Rescue, which helps fund vessels operating in the central Mediterranean. “Such accusations have never been supported by evidence.”
In a written statement, Jacoby, whose organization was started by the German Protestant Church, also said people would attempt the dangerous crossing to the EU whether or not there were lifeboats.
“This is confirmed by the evidence: even though there is often not a single civilian rescue vessel in operation for weeks, many people flee across the Mediterranean,” she said.
Frontex, the EU’s border agency, reportedly raised concerns about the organisations’ interactions with migrant smugglers, but never alleged collusion.
The EU project
On Friday, the European Commission presented its own “action plan” for the central Mediterranean to interior ministers.
Among the suggestions: multiply partnerships with Libya and Tunisia; speeding up the voluntary EU mechanism to relocate asylum seekers internally; and adopt guidelines on search and rescue operations at sea.
The proposals are nothing really new, showing the struggle to fully remedy the situation.
So far, only 113 migrants have actually been relocated under the EU’s voluntary mechanism, despite promises to relocate 8,000 people. And working with non-EU countries poses its own challenges – the EU faced similar accusations of outsourcing its migration efforts in 2016 when it paid Turkey to take in dozens of Syrians trying to reach the EU.
NGOs are also questioning the interest of new directives for rescue operations.
“There is already a legal framework for rescue at sea – international maritime law,” Jacoby said. “There are no more regulations needed for civilian lifeboats because all civilian lifeboats follow these laws.”
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