European leaders grapple with migration issue

Muhammad Zamir | Published: July 08, 2018 21:21:48 | Updated: July 11, 2018 21:17:56

Illegal immigration is broadly defined as the illegal entry of a person or a group of persons across a country's border, in a way that violates the immigration laws of the destination country. Such a process particularly refers to persons or families who try to or enter other countries with the intention to remain in that country though they do not have the legal right to do so. These persons do so knowing full well that they can appeal to stay on but that they also face the risk of being detained or deported.

In some countries or cases, these people are considered as illegal immigrants, and in others, they may get a temporary residence permit, for example with reference to the principle of non-refoulement as contained in the international Refugee Convention. The European Court of Human Rights, referring to the European Convention on Human Rights, has at times drawn attention to this process through a number of indicative judgments that there are enforcement barriers to expulsion to certain countries, for example due to the risk of torture.

It needs to be noted here however that according to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees should be exempted from immigration laws and should expect protection from the country they entered. It is, however, up to the countries involved to decide if a particular immigrant is a refugee or not, and hence whether they are subject to the immigration controls. Furthermore, countries that did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention or do not attempt to follow its guidelines are likely to consider refugees and asylum seekers as illegal immigrants.

There have been campaigns in many countries since 2007 discouraging the use of the term "illegal immigrant". They are generally based on the argument that the act of immigrating illegally does not make the people themselves illegal, but rather they are "people who have immigrated illegally". In the United States, a "Drop the I-Word" campaign was launched in 2010 advocating the use of terms such as undocumented immigrants or unauthorised immigrants when referring to foreign nationals who reside in a country illegally. In some cases the term "illegal immigrants" is shortened, often pejoratively, to "illegals".

This whole issue of migration and illegal migration has assumed importance because of what is happening in different parts of the world due to war, ethnic cleansing and terrorism. Over the past few years we have watched with horror the dire effects of civil war in Sudan and other parts of Africa, in Iraq, Libya, Syria and in Yemen. The case of displacement of more than one million Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh because of ethnic cleansing and genocide has affected the stability of our region.

Recently matters came to a head with the arrival of a few hundred refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe from the shores of Libya in the second and third weeks of June. Rescued in the sea by European civil society activists the rescue boats were not allowed to dock in Malta and then in Italy by their respective authorities. Eventually some of the boats were allowed to off-load the desperate refugees in France and Spain. It may be noted here that according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), since the beginning of 2018 until  June 28, 2018, a total of 43,767 migrants have entered Europe by sea. These statistics indicate that there has been a slight reduction in the rate of inflow of refugees and illegal migrant into Europe. Arrivals by sea to EU in 2014 were 247.263 in 2014, 1.070.625 in 2015, 360.329 in 2016 and 172.362 in 2017. It may also be mentioned that 16,000 migrants have died or have gone missing at sea since 2014.

Analysts have noted that the number of migrants arriving illegally in Europe may be down, but so is voter tolerance of the problem. The rise across the EU of tough-on-migration politicians has emboldened hardliners such as Hungary's Victor Orban and Austria's Sebastian Kurz (who has taken over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU from July) who consider that migration deserves top priority.

German chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for compromise on burden-sharing and prevention in the EU summit held in June in the last week of June. But she has been weakened at home by her previous open-door migrant policy.

At their June summit, the EU leaders eventually reached a common deal with regard to the burden of resettling refugees shared more widely among member states. Some of the relevant sections of the deal are as follows:

(a) The European Council reconfirms that a precondition for a functioning EU policy relies on a comprehensive approach to migration which combines more effective control of the EU's external borders, increased external action and the internal aspects, in line with EU principles and values. This is a challenge not only for a single Member State, but for Europe as a whole.

(b) The European Council is determined to continue and reinforce this policy to prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015 and to further stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes. In this regard, intensive efforts would be undertaken to stop smugglers operating out of Libya. It will also not only step up its support for the Sahel region, the Libyan Coastguard, coastal and Southern communities but help to create humane reception conditions, voluntary humanitarian returns, and cooperation with other countries of origin and transit, as well as voluntary resettlement.

(c) Similarly, on the Eastern Mediterranean Route, additional efforts will be taken to prevent new crossings from Turkey and bring the flows to a halt. Cooperation with, and support for, partners in the Western Balkans region will also remain key to exchange information on migratory flows, prevent illegal migration, increase the capacities for border protection and improve return and readmission procedures.  The European Council has also stressed on the concept of regional disembarkation platforms, in close cooperation with relevant third countries as well as UNHCR and IOM.

(d) The European Council has also agreed on launching the second tranche of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey and at the same time on transferring 500 million euro from the 11th EDF reserve to the EU Trust Fund for Africa. Member States have also been called upon to contribute further to the EU Trust Fund for Africa with a view to its replenishment. This approach has been undertaken to tackle the migration problem at its core through substantial socio-economic transformation of the African continent- in the areas of education, health, infrastructure, innovation, good governance and women's empowerment.

(e) It has also been reiterated that secondary movements of asylum seekers between Member States risk jeopardising the integrity of the Common European Asylum System and the Schengen acquis. Member States should take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures to counter such movements and to closely cooperate amongst each other to that end.

Despite EU leaders' broad welcome for the migration deal, many questions however remain unanswered.

The Council has agreed to work closely with the UN migration agency, the IOM, and UN refugee agency, UNHCR, as well as relevant third countries to explore the proposal for "regional disembarkation platforms" where migrants would be assessed before they get close to setting off for Europe by sea. Nevertheless, it is not yet clear whether Libya and other North African nations will be willing or capable of setting up "regional disembarkation platforms" for migrants as proposed by the European Union. The IOM and UNHCR have said that they "stand ready to support a common approach, and call on all countries in the Mediterranean region to come together to implement a predictable and responsible disembarkation mechanism in a manner that prioritises human rights and safety first."

One will need to wait and see what happens. Nothing is certain right now.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

Share if you like