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EU Moves Toward Agreement on Sharing Responsibility for Migrants and Refugees

Rescued migrants sit on a coast some 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, July 25, 2019. The U.N. refugee agency and the International Rescue Committee say up to 150 may have perished at sea off the coast of Libya. © 2019 AP Photo/Hazem Ahmed

After a year of disputes and ad hoc solutions to resolve stand-offs that have stranded people on rescue ships for weeks off European coasts, there finally appears to be progress towards a European Union-coordinated approach to receiving migrants arriving by sea. But the tragic deaths of at least 150 people in a shipwreck off the Libyan coast today underscores the need for EU governments to do much more.

At a meeting of EU interior and foreign ministers, convened by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this week, 14 EU countries endorsed “in principle” a France-Germany proposal for a “temporary solidarity mechanism” for swift disembarkation at the closest safe port and relocation of people rescued in the Mediterranean. Eight countries – Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxemburg, and Portugal – said they intended to move forward with a new system. With many details lacking about implementation of such a mechanism, a follow up meeting announced for September in Malta will hopefully provide more clarity.

Building consensus will not be easy. France, Germany, and others say only certain asylum seekers should be relocated, while those not in need of international protection should remain in the country where they are disembarked. Italy – whose interior minister Matteo Salvini pointedly refused to participate in the meeting and dismissed its outcome – and Malta argue everyone should be relocated. Resolving this will require decisions on how to fairly carry out any preliminary assessments upon disembarkation and how to genuinely share responsibility among EU countries for people arriving irregularly.

Participants at the Paris meeting also addressed the dire situation in Libya, reportedly endorsing a call to Libyan authorities to “put an end to their policy of systematic detention” of refugees and migrants. Macron emphasized that appeal in his public remarks. This is vital, as is the stated commitment to increase and accelerate resettlement in EU countries of refugees evacuated out of Libya.

In the same breath, however, EU governments – including France – continue to insist on supporting the Libyan Coast Guard and demanding all ship captains obey its instructions. If EU governments are serious about taking a rights-respecting course, they should swiftly enact policies supporting European rescue at sea, safe disembarkation, and protection upon arrival at EU ports, and ensure that no one should be returned to Libya, given the serious risks to their lives and rights.

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