The Mediterranean has become a vast grave in recent years for thousands of people crossing to Europe, in search of a better life. An estimated 82,240 people have arrived in Europe by sea in 2019, with 1,087 confirmed deaths. Numbers have reduced compared to previous years – in 2015 nearly a million people making crossings – but the need for safe and legal routes still exists, as does the need for a comprehensive European mechanism for processing those claiming asylum who arrive on its shores and finding long-term solutions depending on the outcomes.
Search and rescue (SAR) and the subsequent management of those seeking asylum have become contentious issues for European states. The Dublin Regulation stipulates that, in general, asylum claims must be processed by whichever EU country a person first arrives into, which has meant that there has been an unequal sharing of responsibility between member states. Although the European Parliament has been ready to start the process of reforming the Dublin Regulation since 2017, little progress has been made as EU governments have failed to agree to proposed measures. Reforms would allow EU states to better share responsibility for processing and hosting the new arrivals – currently the bloc has no clear system for resettlement. Instead, an ad hoc system of relocation has emerged with new arrivals to Europe being dealt with on a case by case basis and responsibility sharing remaining unequal, leading to what some call a ‘crisis of solidarity’. The Visegrád group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) have refused to enter into solidarity mechanisms, whilst Southern Mediterranean countries along with Germany, France and Sweden, have been at the forefront of accepting new arrivals.
With their position in the Mediterranean, Italy and Malta, have historically been the primary arrival points for migrants making the Central Mediterranean crossing from Libya towards Europe. However, in the last year there have been increasing refusals from these states to allow SAR vessels carrying rescued migrants to disembark. Growing anti-immigration sentiment in Europe and, especially in Italy, led to increasing hostile policies towards migrants. The lack of clear relocation mechanisms has meant that Malta and Italy have been reluctant to allow boats to disembark rescued passengers and have only been allowing boats to land once complicated and lengthy agreements have been reached with other EU states about who will take responsibility for hosting migrants, after initial reception. In 2018 newly elected Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, began introducing fines of up to a million euros for SAR vessels that docked at Italian ports without permission. Rescued migrants, many of whom will have been exposed to brutal violence and horrendous human rights abuses, risk being stranded at sea for weeks, whilst waiting for agreements to be made.
On September 19th, a mini migration summit was held in Malta with the Home Affairs Ministers from Malta, Italy, France and Germany seeking to reach a “predictable and efficient temporary solidarity mechanism” between EU member states. The draft proposal sought to lay out a clear process whereby people rescued at sea and bought to shore would be relocated from Malta or Italy to an EU member state voluntarily participating in the agreement within four weeks of arrival. By establishing a new fast track system, those claiming asylum would be screened, their eligibility for asylum confirmed or denied and then they would either be repatriated to their country of origin or resettled to a participating EU state – within four weeks. Additionally, as well seeking to establish a more predictable and efficient solution to the relocation of new arrivals, the proposal also highlighted the need to reform the Dublin Regulations and the Common European Asylum System to ensure that there is a better balance of responsibility and solidarity between EU member states that addresses the overstretched reception capacities of states such as Malta and Italy.
The meeting took place before the two weeks before a summit of European Interior Ministers in Luxembourg, where the Mediterranean migration challenges were discussed. Discussing the outcomes of the summit, France’s European Affairs Minister said that around 10 states were willing to accept the asylum seekers under the temporary proposed scheme, but as yet, nothing had been formally agreed. Securing commitments from EU member states about their voluntary participation in the relocation mechanism will be a priority in the coming weeks. Rescue vessels attempting to land in Italy or Malta will still have to call a central telephone number and ascertain which country will accept the asylum-seekers before they can land. Additionally, concerns have been raised by Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus, all of whom have been major arrival points for migrants, in that the new plan focuses on the Central Mediterranean and not on addressing relocation challenges in eastern Europe.
Until effective mechanisms agreed upon and implemented, those seeking protection will continue to suffer, stuck at sea or in overcrowded reception centres whilst political battles are fought over their heads.