EU migrant plan will ‘send children back to a living hell’, rights groups say

Rights groups on Friday blasted EU plans to help Libya stem migrant departures as a recipe for children being sent back to squalid detention centres in the north African country.

EU migrant plan will 'send children back to a living hell', rights groups say
Members of the Libyan Red Crescent gather to treat the drowned bodies of illegal immigrants which washed ashore after their ship sank. Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP

At a summit in Malta, leaders of the bloc approved a new strategy to “break the business model” of traffickers who have helped more than half a million mainly African migrants enter the European Union via Libya and Italy in the last three years.

But non-governmental organizations have warned it could result in women and children being returned to inhumane conditions and left vulnerable to rape, beatings and forced labour as well as forcible repatriation to uncertain fates in their home countries.

“Sending children back to a country many have described as a living hell is not a solution,” said Ester Asin of British charity Save the Children, ahead of the approval of the widely-trailed new EU strategy.

The cornerstone of the plan involves funding and training the Libyan coastguard to make it better able to intercept migrant boats before they reach international waters patrolled by an Italian-led search-and-rescue operation.

'Outsourcing responsibility'

The EU leaders also welcomed a deal announced on Thursday under which Italy will help Libya's UN-backed government of National Accord to stem the migrant flow.

That bilateral accord includes controversial proposals to set up temporary camps to house illegal immigrants arriving in the north African state, pending their deportation or voluntary return to their home countries.

The camps would be Libyan-run but EU-funded with Italy providing medical support.

With Libya in a chaotic, conflict-scarred state and the UN-backed administration only in control of sections of the country's vast coastline, the prospect of turning boats back and establishing so-called “welcome centres” in the trouble country is causing deep concern in the humanitarian community.

Human Rights Watch said the EU would be flouting its international obligations by “outsourcing responsibility” for the migrants to one party to a conflict in a fundamentally unstable state.

As the EU leaders boarded a boat to cross Malta's historic harbour to their lunch venue, rescue ships off Libya were engaged in multiple frantic operations to save hundreds of people including babies from a fresh wave of rickety boats.

“It's an absolute nightmare in the Med right now,” the Doctors with Borders (MSF) charity said.

'Shoot us like dogs'

Aboard The Aquarius, a humanitarian ship chartered by SOS Mediterranee and MSF, would-be refugees described the fear they have of being sent back to Libya and falling again into the arms of traffickers.

“The Libyans shoot us like dogs,” Boubacar, a 17-year-old Guinean was quoted as saying by an SOS Mediterranee spokeswoman.

Emmanuel, from Cameroon, said a friend of his had twice experienced the terror of being returned to Libya at gunpoint after boarding a smuggler's boat for Italy.

“They take you to a prison, give you a phone and make you phone your family to get them to pay to get you out,” he said.

The EU's attempts to get Libya to effectively blockade its own coastline follows a record year for arrivals in Italy (181,000 in 2016) and the deadliest winter yet in the Mediterranean, with migrants perishing at sea at a rate of 15 per day over the last three months, according to UN refugee agency (UNHCR) figures.

Rescuers say the death toll has risen because traffickers are sending more and more overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels to sea in tough winter conditions in order to maximize profits while they can.

Critics of EU efforts to resolve the crisis say the search-and-rescue operation in the international waters off Libya encourage traffickers because they know they only have to get their human cargo a few miles offshore and they will be picked up and taken to Italy.

But Rome maintains it has a moral duty to save lives.

The UN's children agency UNICEF said an unprecedented 1,354 migrants, including 190 children, had died in the Mediterranean in the past three months, most of them on the Libya-Italy route.


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.