As the EU and its member states have dramatically reduced the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe across the Mediterranean, the Council of Europe asks if the price was worth it. Its scathing report is out today on the deadly and abusive results of European migrant deterrence policies in the central Mediterranean.

20th of June is World Refugee Day. In preparation, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights today launched a report on protecting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants who try to cross the central Mediterranean from North Africa to the EU. The report comes at a time of historically high numbers of refugees (more than 25 million worldwide), combined with a shrinking number of states willing to host them. The Council’s report shows how EU states individually and together have gone about closing down irregular migration routes to Europe for migrants and refugees alike.

Over the past two years, the number of migrants and refugees who have taken the central Mediterranean route has dropped dramatically. The numbers for Italy, the main arrival point, tell a clear story. In 2013, in response to major drowning disasters in the Mediterranean, the country launched a much-lauded maritime operation, Mare Nostrum, which in the course of one year rescued more than 150,000 people. By October 2014, the operation was discontinued but the number of migrants attempting the precarious route nevertheless increased dramatically. Between 2014 and 2016, more than half a million irregular migrants arrived in Italy.  Since then, however, Italy and the rest of the EU have taken a range of measures to discourage, deter and bar migrants from arriving on EU territory.

It has worked, at least for now: in 2018, Italy received 23,000 new arrivals. So far in 2019, 2,128 people have arrived.

The Council of Europe report highlights the many ways in which EU member states have managed to reduce sea arrivals so dramatically. State-led search and rescue operations have been scaled down and NGO rescue boats have been discouraged and threatened from taking over the task. Reports of arbitrary arrests and legal proceedings against humanitarian aid workers and volunteers providing lifesaving services to asylum seekers in the Mediterranean are readily available in the media – see here and here. Anti-immigration policies have also seen some European governments closing their ports to humanitarian vessels, driving a sharp decrease in rescue missions. The adoption of increasingly restrictive laws has led to some EU member States directly contravening their legal human rights obligations.

While closing down the European side of the Mediterranean Sea, the EU has also worked to boost the Libyan coast guard’s ability to intercept and/or rescue migrants and return them to Libya. Once back on land, most are detained indefinitely in abysmal conditions and many endure torture, rape, extortion and slavery.

A troubling part of this heavy-handed approach can be found in the data. While the sharp drop in the number of arrivals into the EU has also led to a drop in the overall number of dead and missing, the proportional risk of death has gone up. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), one death/missing person was reported in every 55 arrivals in 2017. By 2018 this figure had risen to one death/ missing person in every 51 arrivals. So far this year, one death/missing person has been reported in every 44 arrivals. These are shocking statistics.  

The Council of Europe calls for a reframing of Europe’s migration response to ensure human rights standards are upheld and lives protected. It divides its recommendations into five key areas: 1) search and rescue operations, 2) safe disembarkation, 3) cooperation with NGOs, 4) cooperation with third countries, and 5) ensuring safe and legal migration routes. The report recognizes the protection of migrant and refugee rights as a considerable challenge. It also recognizes that this challenge is not new.

Indeed, their recommendations come as no surprise. While the report makes a comprehensive case for a humane and rights-based approach to irregular migration, its arguments and recommendations are already well-rehearsed. The strength of the Council’s report is the forceful and uncompromising way in which it brings together a comprehensive case for upholding states’ obligations under maritime, refugee and human rights law. But this uncompromising stance can also be seen as its weakness: by not discussing, beyond noting that migration has been ‘politicised’, the extremely powerful and complex political challenges thrown up by Europe’s ‘refugee and migration crisis’ in 2015-16, the report does not provide a roadmap for how EU member states can overcome the emergency mode that currently drives European migration policy.

Governing migration-related development and humanitarian work

At Agulhas, we are currently contributing to the development and implementation of regional migration policy in the East and Horn of Africa. As the Northern/Central Mediterranean route has gone from being a major migration corridor to Europe to becoming a smaller and increasingly dangerous path, large numbers of migrants from this region have been stranded at different points along their way to Europe. Some have been stranded for lack of opportunity or funding to push on, others forcibly detained in government detention centres or by criminal gangs, particularly in Libya.

Development assistance is increasingly being targeted at communities, countries and regions along these irregular migration routes in Africa. If such interventions are not well thought through, however, they risk adding harm to the rights and well-being of already vulnerable migrants. While the Council’s report is mainly concerned with the situation in Libya, the chapter on migration cooperation with third countries provides an excellent summary of the broad guidelines that need to govern all migration-related development and humanitarian work:

  • Always conduct human rights risk assessments of the impact of the intervention before going ahead.
  • Such risk assessments should be accompanied by mitigation strategies.
  • If sufficient mitigation strategies cannot be found, the activity should not be implemented.
  • There should be close monitoring of activities and a willingness to put them on hold if there is a risk of harm.
  • Those affected by the activity should have access to an effective system of redress.
  • Cooperation plans, risk assessments, mitigation strategies and monitoring reports should be transparent and accessible to the public.

It is currently hard to see how the report’s recommendations to resume large-scale search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean and cease cooperation with the Libyan coast guard on returning migrants will be listened to. But even in their current migration-control emergency mode, there is perhaps a better chance that the EU and its member states could be convinced to take this checklist to heart when cooperating with countries of migrant origin and transit. Ultimately, efforts will need to be stepped up across multiple fronts to protect the lives and rights of refugees and migrants.