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Ursula von der Leyen addresses the EPP Congress in Bucharest, Alamy Stock Photo
Rwanda Style

'We are really going in the direction of outsourcing asylum'

Migration policy remains a pressing issue at all levels of European politics, especially with parliamentary elections looming in early June.

EUROPEAN LEADERS DESCENDED on Brussels this week to attend two days of meetings of the European Council, where foreign policy issues dominated discussions.

While it may not have been top of the agenda at the summit with defence concerns, support for Ukraine and the conflict in Palestine all taking up time and attention, the bloc’s migration policy remains a pressing issue at all levels of European politics, especially with parliamentary elections looming in early June.  

The Council meetings came after a recent proposal from the European Parliament’s main conservative party to send asylum seekers offshore to countries outside the EU, a policy endorsed by now outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

On 7 March, the European People’s Party (EPP), of which Fine Gael is a part, proposed making deals with “safe third countries” where asylum seekers would be sent to have their claims for international protection processed. 

The proposal falls along similar lines to the infamous plan put forward by the UK government known as the Rwanda policy, which was deemed illegal by the UK courts because Rwanda could not be said to be a safe country. 

The shift towards the popularity of stronger anti-immigration policies fits a trend sweeping EU member states, with far-right, anti-immigrant parties making gains in various national elections, most recently in Portugal

Traditional conservative parties have been moving in this direction of late because of this right-wing pressure, said Maynooth University professor of sociology John O’Brennan. 

“All over Europe, you can see that immigration has become the hot button issue. It’s going to feature very strongly in the [upcoming European Parliament] election. And I think the reason the EPP has embraced this sort of hardline stance on migration is precisely because they think that’s what they need to do.”

However, he added that this kind of political manoeuvring has not been particularly successful for centre-right parties in Europe, because people who vote based on anti-immigrant sentiment generally don’t trust establishment politicians. 

The details of which countries the EPP plans to send people to have not been published yet and O’Brennan believes the announcement’s timing, four months ahead of a parliamentary election, is no coincidence.

“So much of what goes on in Brussels is all about the elections and about positioning. And I think beyond that there isn’t very much in the minds of politicians about what they’re actually doing and about whether the policy actually has any kind of integrity or structural basis.”

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – also a member of the EPP – has been a very public face of a migration policy that is increasingly focused on outsourcing the work to other countries, making trips to various countries to announce deals through which the EU pays these states to stop people reaching Europe. She is seeking a second term as President.

This week she was in Egypt confirming another deal – one that has been criticised by the EU’s own Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, because of Egypt’s terrible human rights record under president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

in-this-photo-provided-by-egypts-presidency-media-office-egyptian-president-abdel-fattah-el-sissi-right-talks-to-european-commission-president-ursula-von-der-leyen-at-the-presidential-palace-in-c Ursula von der Leyen and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt earlier this week. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“I think she is clearly trying to position herself for a second term and she wants to present herself as the tough sort of face of immigration on the centre right. The photocall is just as important as the substance of the policy,” said O’Brennan. 

He added that she has been seen to embrace Italy’s right-wing prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who recently struck a bilateral deal with Albania along the lines of the UK’s “Rwanda policy”.

Fiona Crowley of Amnesty International told The Journal that the EPP’s proposal, if enacted, would almost certainly contravene international law.

“It will inevitably lead to serious breaches, but also undermining of the fundamental principles of international refugee and human rights law,” she said.

“Certainly it is like the unfortunate progression over 20 years of the EU and other rich states trying to relieve themselves of the responsibilities under the Refugee Convention and international human rights law.”

She noted that the EPP manifesto also says that people don’t get to choose their country of asylum.

“But one of the key core principles of the Refugee Convention is that once a person reaches and enters into a country they have a right to seek and enjoy asylum there. So this cannot possibly be compliant with the Refugee Convention.”

The fact that many offshoring programmes like the one proposed by the EPP usually end up housing people in detention centres in countries that are not safe means that the proposal would also likely breach the UN Convention Against Torture, she said.

“Under that convention, EU member states like Ireland are absolutely prohibited from removing anyone to a country where they’re at risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Nothing new

Striking deals with countries outside the EU is nothing new. O’Brennan points to agreements with Egypt, Libya and Turkey. The EU pays those states to make sure asylum seekers don’t arrive in Europe. It also has deals with Mauritania and Tunisia.

“The price we pay for this is terrible,” O’Brennan said, pointing out that these arrangements directly contradict the values that are so often espoused by EU politicians and therefore damage their credibility.

231217-rome-dec-17-2023-xinhua-british-prime-minister-rishi-sunak-l-albanian-prime-minister-edi-rama-r-and-italian-prime-minister-giorgia-meloni-meet-at-the-palazzo-chigi-the-offici UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni meet in Rome in December 2023. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Bianca Benvenuti, humanitarian affairs advisor at Doctors Without Border (MSF), told The Journal that existing arrangements between the EU and third countries are “trapping thousands of people in countries that are absolutely not safe in MSF’s experience”.

The reliance on these externalising deals was reaffirmed as EU policy in the recently agreed migration pact and the latest proposal from the EPP represents another step in this direction.

“So what we’re seeing is that the European Union is at all costs trying to trap people in third countries,” Benvenuti said.

“Of course now with deals like the Rwanda deal but also what we’ve recently seen with the Italian-Albanian deal, the externalisation policies are going a step forward. 

“And we are really going in the direction of outsourcing asylum, which is really kind of a copy of what the Australian government was doing in Nauru with the offshore processing model.”

Nauru is a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean where Australia has at different times indefinitely detained immigrants since 2001. When MSF doctors visited in 2017 they observed “a mental health epidemic”, said Benvenuti. 

MSF staff have found people suffering from serious mental health problems in detention centres like the one on Nauru. “The sense of uncertainty about the future, the sense of insecurity, leads to really catastrophic impacts on people’s mental health,” Benvenuti said. 

The EPP proposal does not say whether or not people will be detained in third countries but other similar programmes, like the Australian one, have left people wallowing in detention centres in terrible conditions.

“These policies are creating vulnerabilities and health problems in a population that then can’t even receive adequate care because Western governments are trying to keep people seeking safety and protection out at all costs.”

She said that EU border policy has been growing more and more hostile since its policy shifted towards deterrence of asylum seekers after the “so-called migrant crisis” of 2015. MSF staff have recently witnessed increasing “radicalisation” and “institutionalisation of violent practices and policies”, which she said are normalising the suffering of migrants.  

For O’Brennan too, the EPP’s proposal comes from the same place as the existing externalisation deals with Turkey and countries in North Africa.  

“The reason all of these things are happening is because we cannot come up with a collective European policy,” he said. 

“Migration, if you think it’s a problem now and if you perceive it like that, wait until we see the full effects of climate change. 

“The displacement of people is going to be extraordinary. And we are going to have to get our act together in Europe to face all of this, because there are so many governments that just don’t want to take any refugees.”

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