The Malta Independent 16 December 2019, Monday

Four EU nations, including Malta, seek endorsement for 'fast-track' migrant plan

Wednesday, 2 October 2019, 08:18 Last update: about 3 months ago

Four European Union nations will seek endorsement next week from their EU partners for a "fast-track system" for getting migrants off boats in trouble in the Mediterranean Sea and distributing people aboard who want to seek asylum among countries willing to take them.

Germany, France, Italy and Malta want approval for a process that would screen migrants, relocate asylum-seekers and return people who don't apply or qualify, all within four weeks, according to a statement obtained by the civil liberties watchdog Statewatch.

The Associated Press obtained confirmation Tuesday of the statement's authenticity.

The system would work based on "pre-declared pledges" countries would make to accept asylum-seekers, and would involve "streamlining procedures" currently in place. No details were provided.

It would operate for at least six months, unless migrant arrivals increase dramatically, and the EU would provide "financial, technical and operational assistance" to participating countries, the statement said.

The document was drafted for a Sept. 23 meeting of the four countries' interior ministers in Malta but not made public. The country holding the EU presidency - Finland - and the EU's top migration official were present at the meeting as observers. EU interior ministers are set to discuss the proposal during talks in Luxembourg on Oct. 8.

For more than a year, humanitarian ships that picked up migrants from rickety boats at sea were blocked from docking or disembarking passengers in Italy or Malta. Italy's former anti-migrant interior minister even threatened to jail the crews of rescue ships run by aid groups.

The stance taken by the two countries resulted in standoffs that kept rescued migrants at sea for weeks until other EU nations pledged to take at least some of the people seeking safety or better lives in Europe.

Most of the rescues occurred in a vast search and rescue area that Libya registered last year with EU backing, stretching about halfway to the Italian island of Lampedusa. This technically makes Libya's EU-trained coast guard responsible for rescue operations in the area.

But humanitarian organizations insist they can't legally hand people over to be taken back to a country in conflict where their lives could be endangered. Some migrants have thrown themselves overboard rather than be taken back by the Libyan coast guard.

The statement said all vessels engaged in rescue operations would be required "to comply with instructions given by the competent Rescue Coordination Center," which in most cases probably means the Libyan authorities. They are warned not to obstruct search and rescue operations by official coast guard ships "including the Libyan coastguard."

EU member countries are urged to provide more aircraft and drones so aerial surveillance can be increased near the northern African coast.

In a veiled warning to NGOs actively looking for migrant boats in distress in the Mediterranean, the four countries underlined that "the facilitation of illegal migration at sea is an offense" and that "the systematic activity facilitating irregular migration poses a particular cause for concern."

Well over 1 million migrants arrived in the EU in 2015, most refugees from countries at war like Syria or Iraq. New arrivals have now dropped to their lowest levels in about seven years.

In Bosnia, a U.N. migration expert said at the end of an eight-day visit to the country that the increased influx of migrants has exposed significant institutional and coordination weaknesses of authorities at different levels of government.

Felipe Gonzalez Morales, the U.N. special rapporteur on migrant rights, said the issue of the increased migrant influx has been "highly politicized" in Bosnia because of its "fragmented political structure, the lack of unity of vision (and) the lack of willingness of authorities" to address the problem in a coordinated fashion.

The existing reception capacities for migrants don't meet current needs and no appropriate housing is provided for unaccompanied or separated children and victims of abuse and exploitation. Nearly 20% of migrants and refugees in Bosnia are children, a third of them unaccompanied minors.

Gonzales Morales said there was "ample evidence" that the migrants' freedom of movement is being restricted in Bosnia and that such limitations "are extensive." Also, the existing procedures hinder "fair and efficient access to asylum in practice."

Particularly concerning is the July decision by the authorities in northwestern Bosnia, close to the border with EU member Croatia, to start forcibly escorting hundreds of migrants, including minors, to a poorly run camp located atop a former landfill in a mine-infested area. The site was described by Gonzales Morales as "inhuman and absolutely inappropriate for accommodating human beings."

There is also "reliable information about violent pushback of migrants and asylum-seekers by Croatian border police into the territory of Bosnia."

The common patterns include "the capture of migrants, confiscation of their property, beatings with batons and chasing by dogs with the purpose of physically exhausting them."

Bosnia, which never fully recovered from its 1992-95 war, has struggled to house, feed and provide psychological care for nearly 50,000 newcomers who crossed into the country since the beginning of last year, according to Bosnian government statistics.

At the same time, the migration pressure continues to grow. Since the beginning of this year, the county registered over 22,000 new migrant arrivals, nearly 30 times more than for all of 2017.

The so-called Balkan route that migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa take in hopes of reaching western Europe shifted south to Bosnia two years ago after governments closed off other established paths north of the country.

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