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Migrants and refugees sit in a boat alongside the Maersk Etienne tanker off the coast of Malta, in this handout image provided 19 August, 2020.   © 2020 Maersk Tankers

After a short lull during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, migrants and refugees are once again boarding flimsy boats, mainly in Libya, in a desperate effort to cross the Mediterranean for European shores. Hundreds are drowning. Others are fortunate enough to be rescued by nearby boats. The European Union’s coast guard, Frontex, has long stopped patrolling anywhere near where endangered migrants might need them, so rescue vessels operated by nongovernmental groups as well as passing merchant ships are filling this humanitarian gap.

However, after they are rescued, a cynical stalling game begins, at the expense of vulnerable, and often injured and sick, people and their rescuers. Weeks can pass with rescued persons stuck in overcrowded boats that were never designed to hold passengers while EU governments bicker over who has responsibility and where to let people disembark, usually to file claims for asylum. Ultimately, they do come ashore, but their unnecessary suffering seems designed to try to deter others from following.

Delays also appear to be part of a larger strategy to tie up the rescue ships and to signal to commercial carriers that they will pay a heavy price if they live up to their duty to rescue people imperiled at sea. For example, for the past month – since August 5 – 27 people rescued in the Maltese search-and-rescue area have been stuck on the Danish tanker Maersk Etienne. Maltese authorities asked the Etienne to pick them up but now refuse to allow them to disembark.

Things may be getting even worse. Malta is reportedly planning to use a large passenger ship to detain migrants and asylum seekers instead of letting them come ashore, and the European Commission has said EU funds may be used to keep people offshore.

The failure of EU countries to find a way to share responsibility for people seeking safety and opportunity in Europe is at the root of policies that allow people to drown at sea and delay those who are rescued from reaching land. EU governments know it is illegal to return people to the nightmarish detention centers in Libya where they risk torture, rape and other abuses. But that has not stopped the EU from paying the Libyan Coast Guard to do the dirty work. Libyan forces intercepted more than 7,000 women, men and children in the first eight months of 2020.

If people evade Libyan forces, Malta and Italy are usually the nearest safe port. Under the EU’s Dublin rules, those countries, as the ones of landing, are supposed to take responsibility for processing all asylum seekers, but they have bridled at rules that place an undue burden on them by virtue of their geography. The entire European Union could easily share responsibility – the numbers are low and manageable in a region of 500 million people – but lack of political will as well as xenophobic governments such as Hungary and Poland stand in the way.

That’s when the waiting game begins. But it’s not only those fleeing and their rescuers who suffer as they pointlessly pass days and weeks stranded at sea. So does EU democracy. Each prolonged standoff is a gift to the far right. Although some media coverage is sympathetic to the plight of these individuals, far-right politicians use the impasse to portray Europe as under siege, to insist that all migration be cut off. To gain power and carry out their programs, these politicians show no qualms about undercutting democratic institutions. Even in countries that might be inclined to accept some asylum seekers, the longer the deadlock, the more time there is for hostile forces to mount opposition.

A different approach is urgently needed. Instead of a predictable series of grueling ad hoc negotiations, willing EU governments should agree in advance on how to share responsibility. With a standing agreement, Malta and Italy would have no reason to resist allowing rescued people to disembark immediately. A declaration signed by Malta, Italy, Germany, and France last year in Valletta laid the basis for a more predictable and fair process for landing and relocation among EU member states but its implementation and future are uncertain. The forthcoming Pact on Migration and Asylum, expected from the European Commission this month, is an opportunity to lay out a principled and sensible way forward.

That no-nonsense approach would stop the needless cruelty of forcing people fleeing violence, persecution and poverty to endure lengthy waits on cramped vessels. It would end the media coverage of another prolonged standoff on which the far right thrives. And it would return respect for human rights and basic humanity as guiding principles for EU policy in the Mediterranean.

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