September 16, 2004

European immigration policy has to do more than simply try to bar the door to migrants and asylum-seekers.

Instead, Buttiglione offered his support for a German proposal that resurrects the discredited idea of establishing centres to process asylum-seekers off-shore, this time in North African countries. The reason? “To prevent the mass exodus from swamping the EU,” he said.

When members of the European Parliament convene to interview new commissioners later this month, they might quiz Buttiglione about his apparent fondness for the stale ideas and rhetoric of “fortress Europe.” They will also need to ask how such ideas square with the need for innovative and rights-respecting approaches to asylum and migration in Europe.

Several European governments and institutions, as well as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, have in the past rightly rejected similar proposals. Such asylum “processing centres,” a polite term for detention camps, would signal an about-face in Europe’s historic commitment to refugee protection. The centres would violate the individual’s right to seek asylum and shift responsibility for migrants and asylum-seekers to developing countries with scarce resources and poor human rights’ records. In March 2004, the European Parliament committee on citizens’ freedoms and rights acknowledged these dangers when it expressed fears that processing centres would undermine the 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights and the key idea of responsibility-sharing.

The European Commission has established that asylum-seekers and refugees must have access to “effective protection.” At a minimum, this means physical security, a guarantee that people will not be sent to places where their lives or freedom are at risk, proper access to fair asylum procedures and social and economic well-being. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous violations of these basic guarantees in the asylum systems of even several EU member states, including the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece. If rich countries that are parties to the Refugee Convention fail to uphold these fundamental standards, it is unrealistic to assume that they can require poorer countries to do so on their behalf.

The specifics of future commissioner Buttiglione’s proposal appear to be exceedingly bad. He argues that the “reception centres” in North Africa should be managed by the governments of the countries where such centres would be established. Putting poor and repressive governments in charge of EU asylum-seekers is a recipe for disaster. The prime example is Libya, a main transit point for African migrants and asylum-seekers on their way to southern Europe. Libya, which has neither ratified the Refugee Convention nor established national asylum procedures, already has an appalling migrant-protection record.

Libya’s recent immigration “reforms,” introduced by Colonel Muammar Gadaffi apparently after overtures from Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, resemble a catalogue of human rights abuses against migrants and asylum-seekers. African internees and migrants in Libya are being detained in what one MEP has described as “catastrophic conditions.” And Libya continues forcibly to deport Eritrean refugees to Eritrea, where they face arrest, illegal detention and torture. If Libya is called on to run EU processing camps, we can surely expect more of the same.

European immigration policy has to do more than simply try to bar the door to migrants and asylum-seekers. A truly visionary approach to immigration and asylum would position Europe as a leader in development assistance to countries from which migrants flee. Europe could also be a stauncher supporter of democratic reforms in countries where repression and rights abuses are the norm, and an innovator in labour migration that respects workers’ rights. But the real test of European imagination and resolve right now is the challenge of neutralizing those who would erect more walls, at the expense of the rights of the most vulnerable.