The European Union has condemned rescue boats picking up drowning refugees in the Mediterranean, in a dramatic hardening of the bloc’s border policy that brings it in line with the continent’s anti-immigration populists.
After a summit in Brussels EU leaders backed the approach of Italy’s new populist government to the boats, suggesting the vessels should stay away and could be breaking the law by picking up those in distress.
A communiqué issued by the European Council warns the vessels’ operators that they should defer to the Libyan coastguard, which NGOs say amounts to “deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea”.
The new policy, part of a raft of measures unveiled by the bloc in the wake of a populist anti-immigration backlash across the continent, comes hours after 100 people were reported to have drowned off the Libyan coast.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, said this week ahead of the meeting that “voracious” NGO boats were aiding “human traffickers” and that that they should not be “disturbing” the coastguard and “causing trouble”.
When the Libyan coastguard picks up refugees and migrants in distress on the sea it returns them to Libya, which is currently in the throes of a civil war and where torture and inhumane detentions have been recorded. NGO boats tend to take people rescued onwards to Europe where they can apply for asylum. The NGO rescue boats operate outside of Libyan territorial waters and had the backing of the Italian authorities until the change in government at the start of June.
The EU leaders echoed Mr Salvini’s condemnation in their European Council conclusions published on Friday. “Efforts to stop smugglers operating out of Libya or elsewhere should be further intensified. The EU will continue to stand by Italy and other frontline member states in this respect,” they said.
“[The EU] will step up its support for the Sahel region, the Libyan coastguard, coastal and southern communities, humane reception conditions, voluntary humanitarian returns, cooperation with other countries of origin and transit, as well as voluntary resettlement.
“All vessels operating in the Mediterranean must respect the applicable laws and not obstruct operations of the Libyan coastguard.”
Leaders were accused by charities and human rights group of having “chosen to pander to xenophobic governments” with the bloc’s new policies.
Karline Kleijer, head of emergencies at Médecins Sans Frontières, which supports some of the boats, said: “Saving lives at sea is not a crime. EU member states are abdicating their responsibilities to save lives and deliberately condemning vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea.
“They do this fully aware of the extreme violence and abuses that refugees and migrants suffer in Libya. MSF urges European governments to show some basic decency and remember that we are talking about human lives and human suffering. They can start by committing to search and rescue, and facilitate swift disembarkation in places of safety. This does not mean Libya.”
Iverna McGowan, director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office, said: “After days of bickering, EU leaders have signed off a raft of dangerous and self-serving policies which could expose men, women and children to serious abuse.
“The summit was a chance to fix Europe’s broken asylum system and create policies based on fairness, effectiveness and compassion. Instead EU leaders have chosen to pander to xenophobic governments who are hellbent on keeping Europe closed, and to push even more responsibility onto countries outside the EU.”
EU leaders agreed at the summit that they would explore the establishment of processing centres for migrants in North Africa, step up funding for the Libyan coastguard, and create a new funding system to help member states fight irregular migration. They also agreed in principle to establish controlled areas to hold migrants that do reach Europe, though it is not clear where these would be located.
The Libyan coastguard said about 100 people are feared dead at sea after a boat capsized near Tripoli. The country’s coastguard said it managed to rescue about 16 migrants. A spokesperson for the organisation quoted a Yemeni survivor from the disaster, who said the boat had carried around 125 migrants, including women and children, before it capsized.
Unpacking the concept of “disembarkation platform”, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council told reporters: “It is a place for secure processing and the main aim is to disembark migrants saved in search and rescue operations, distinguish economic migrants from genuine refugees, then return migrants and resettle refugees.
“It could be and I am absolutely sure it will be the most effective mechanism to break the smugglers’ business model – to discourage migrants and smugglers to use this very risky route using vessels on the Mediterranean Sea.”
The European Council’s statement noted that “the number of detected illegal border crossings into the EU has been brought down by 95 per cent from its peak in October 2015”. Despite the massive fall, the subject has hit the top of the agenda in recent weeks after gains for far-right and anti-immigration parties in elections in some countries.
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