Faced with a surge in migration across the Mediterranean Sea, European Union officials apparently think the best way to manage migration is simply to keep migrants from reaching the shore. The EU Commission is currently weighing a plan to reform the union’s border policies by finding more elaborate ways to warehouse, filter, and ultimately push away its unwanted human cargo.
While the plan would do little to stem the social forces that drive people onto smuggling routes from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it would aim to create a number of so-called “controlled centres,” hosted by countries that volunteer to serve as disembarkation points. Processing about 500 people at a time, teams of border agents would screen arrivals for “humanitarian” qualifications, to vet their backgrounds for eligibility for humanitarian protection as refugees, or to brand them mere “economic migrants,” to be forcibly returned. Participating frontline states would gain the EU’s infrastructural support and reimbursement of about 6,000 euros per migrant. But human-rights advocates warn that, like previous policies aimed at “deterrence,” the proposal would simply make the journey more miserable for migrants fleeing crisis in the Global South.
According to Amnesty International researcher Matteo DeBellis, the new approach to “burden sharing” across EU member states just disperses the crisis, and differs little from previous reform efforts. The problem with the current EU system is that, as there is no mandatory, organized distribution plan for migrants once they reach EU territory, migrants face a pinball-like maritime obstacle course, with government and civilian rescue vessels pushing drowning migrants back and forth. The chaos has led to massive human-rights abuses and a total failure to overhaul the so-called “Dublin system,” which compels migrants to seek asylum in the first country in which they step foot. Without fundamentally changing that framework, DeBellis argues, the proposed voluntary scheme of “controlled centers” could lead to “the automatic detention of people for weeks and potentially months.”
The proposed reforms reflect European politics rather than security or humanitarian protection. The main champion is the right-wing government of Italy, which is bridling at its default role as the first port of entry for most migrant vessels.
Although the program purports to ensure more orderly absorption of ships that have historically clustered in Southern Italy and Malta—where reactionary politicians are now moving to shutter their ports—Amnesty says the process won’t end unjust incarceration or mass suffering. Detention should be used “only in extreme circumstances—not automatically,” argues DeBellis. And on principle, authorities “need to consider that among rescued people there are children, torture survivors, pregnant women, human trafficking victims and people who are shocked and traumatized by surviving a shipwreck or perhaps by the loss of a relative. Are we really going to detain these people?”