"Shameful consequences?": Europe contemplates Australian response to African migrants

Will the EU's contemplation of Australia's "solution" to the migration crisis, denying all those rescued at sea the right to settle, end in "shameful consequences"?

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When European leaders meet today, they are contemplating a radical overall of the treatment of questions of refugees and migrants. A military approach, which envisages naval vessels halting the exodus from Africa, is being considered.

No longer will anyone – men, women or children – be able to set sail from Libya with any hope of finding sanctuary in Europe.

This was confirmed by the British Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, who told the Andrew Marr programme: “we have to break the link between rescuing people from the Mediterranean and settlement because they [the migrants and refugees] will keep coming if they think they will be settled.”

Fallon complained that smugglers are phoning the Italian coast guard in advance and informing that their human cargo is settling sail and where to find their vessel.

Until now, anyone rescued by naval vessels at sea has been transported to Italy or Greece and put ashore. Fallon and his European colleagues believe this must end.

The EU agenda for the meeting says consideration being given to:

  • relocation/resettlement
     
  • return/ readmission/reintegration
     
  • cooperation with countries of origin and transit policy

Human rights activists fear something much more dramatic is being considered.

There are real concerns that the distinction between economic migrants (who can be returned) from refugees (who must be given sanctuary under international law) will be maintained in terms of this new policy.

Médecins Sans Frontières has issued a statement warning of what it calls “the shameful consequences of EU member states ignoring their humanitarian duty”. MSF says that the European leaders have to “radically rethink their policies” so that they can offer “safe and legal ways for people to seek refuge and asylum in Europe”.

 

The Australian model

This new approach appears to mirror the Australian policy, which denies all those rescued at sea the right to settle in the country.

The Australians ensure that no one who attempts to arrive in the country without permission can remain. They are held in a series of offshore detention facilities on Nauru and Manus island.

If fully implemented this approach would mean establishing enclaves along the North African coast or detention centres in countries as diverse as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. There are suggestions of establishing a major holding centre in Italy.

The basis for the EU’s response was laid out in a 700-page plan, which has yet to be made public.

 

Refugees, not economic migrants

The recent media coverage of the situation in Calais, where thousands of Africans and Syrians are attempting to board lorries and cars to reach Britain, suggests that everyone is an economic migrant.

Amnesty International says this is simply incorrect.

Steven Symonds, Amnesty’s refugee expert, points to remarks by David Cameron earlier this month, when the Prime Minister accepted that this is not always the case. Cameron put down the flood of migrants to: “the combination of the failed states and criminal gangs in North Africa  driving desperate migrants across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching our shores”.

“This is right,” says Symonds. “These people are being pushed – they have been driven from their homes and are not trying to come to Europe to find a land of milk and honey.”

Amnesty would like to see Britain joining other EU nations in accepting its share of refugees. But this is unlikely to happen.

The latest indication from the EU summit is that as few as 5,000 people will be accepted as refugees. The rest will simply be repatriated. How the EU will return thousands to a state with a human rights record as notorious as Eritrea has yet to be spelled out.

Martin Plaut is a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and author books including Understanding Eritrea and a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.

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