EU pushes ahead with migrant outsourcing plans

Leaders focus on how to stop people arriving in bloc

Illegal migrants of South Asian origin rescued by Tunisia's national guard during an attempted crossing of the Mediterranean by boat rest at the port of el-Ketef in Ben Guerdane in southern Tunisia near the border with Libya on June 24, 2021. Tunisia and Libya are key departure points for migrants attempting the dangerous crossing from the North African coast to Europe, particularly Italy. / AFP / FATHI NASRI
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EU leaders on Thursday agreed to solve the bloc’s migration policy challenges by spending billions of euros to improve co-operation from countries people leave or cross on their way to Europe.

Without agreement on who should take responsibility for migrants when they arrive and whether other members of the 27-nation EU should be obliged to help, the leaders focused on how to stop people arriving in the first place.

At their summit in Brussels, they said that “mutually beneficial partnerships and co-operation with countries of origin and transit will be intensified".

No countries were named but the focus is on northern Africa, from which many migrants set out on dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean to seek a better life or sanctuary in Europe.

“The approach will be pragmatic, flexible and tailor-made", and make use of all available “instruments and incentives” to persuade the countries to co-operate, the leaders said.

Their summit statement was prepared earlier by envoys and was subject to almost no discussion on Thursday.

In it, they invited the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, “to make the best possible use of at least 10 per cent of the NDICI financial envelope, as well as funding under other relevant instruments, for actions related to migration".

The Neighbourhood, Development and International Co-operation Instrument has a budget of €79.5 billion ($95bn) from 2021 to 2027.

This means almost €8bn could be made available for migration purposes.

The money could be used to tackle the root causes that drive people to leave, support refugees and displaced people, build capacity to help countries better manage migration, crack down on human smuggling and boost border controls.

The arrival of well over a million migrants in 2015, many fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq, overwhelmed reception centres in Greece and Italy.

It sparked perhaps the EU’s biggest political crisis, and disputes over responsibility and solidarity continue.

The commission unveiled a vast reform of Europe’s inadequate asylum system in September last year.

EU member countries have endorsed parts of the package but they are unable to resolve the issues at the heart of their standoff.

Migrant arrivals dropped to a relative trickle after the EU sealed a deal in 2015 to convince Turkey to stop people from leaving its shores for the Greek islands, and member countries are trying to replicate that model in North Africa.

The leaders said that despite the significant drop in unauthorised migrant entries, “developments on some routes give rise to serious concern and require continued vigilance and urgent action".

The EU’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, said on Tuesday that 47,100 “illegal border crossings” were made into Europe in the first five months of this year.

That was an increase of 47 per cent for the same period last year, when arrival numbers were significantly down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Frontex said that many of the people crossing the central Mediterranean were Tunisians or from Bangladesh.

Algerians and Moroccans made up most of the people arriving by the western Mediterranean route.

Raphael Shilhav, a migration expert at the charity Oxfam, said the leaders should have used their summit “to discuss creating fair and efficient asylum processes, improve the shameful conditions in EU reception centres and end the violent pushbacks”.

Pushbacks are illegal expulsions of migrants from a country before they can seek asylum there.

“EU leaders must not turn the issue of human rights into political bickering and must instead focus on helping people seek safety,” Mr Shilhav said.