Plan would tackle surge in migrants arriving in Italy, think tank boss says.
By Janosch Delcker
The European Union should strike deals with West African countries to stem the influx of migrants reaching Italy from Libya, according to an architect of the 2016 migration deal between the EU and Turkey.
Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stability Initiative think tank, said many West African migrants risked the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean because they knew they would not be sent home for years — if at all — due to legal and bureaucratic delays, even if their requests for asylum in Europe were rejected.
“Every migrant from West Africa who survives the dangerous journey from Libya to Italy remains in Europe for years afterwards — regardless of the outcome of his or her asylum application,” Knaus said in an interview.
To accelerate the deportations of rejected asylum seekers to West African countries that are considered safe, the EU needs to forge agreements with their governments, he said.
The Central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy — dubbed the “deadliest migration route in the world” by Amnesty International — has become the primary means for migrants reaching Europe this year. More than 93,000 have arrived in Italy in 2017 so far — an increase of 17 percent on the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The influx has caused political tension in Italy and beyond, with the government in Rome threatening to not let foreign ships dock at Italian ports and Vienna raising the prospect of sending troops to the Italian border to stop migrants entering Austria.
Unlike the 2015 migration crisis, when most of those arriving in Greece were from Syria and other war-affected countries such as Afghanistan, a majority of those landing on Italian shores are economic migrants with little chance of being granted asylum.
Around 15 percent of those who have arrived in Italy this year are Nigerian, followed by people from Bangladesh, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
“At the moment, Italy might seem like it’s most immediately affected, but Germany is just as affected with most of the [asylum seekers] planning to travel on to Germany,” Knaus said.
His plan, which he has so far pitched to government representatives in Italy, France, Germany, Malta, Sweden and the Netherlands, includes the European Council appointing a special envoy, ideally a former head of government, to negotiate the deals with African countries.
“There needs to be someone similar to [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel in early 2016 — with similar contact and access to governments — who is every day in charge of thinking about how to solve this problem,” he said.
Knaus knows more about that crisis than most. A concept he developed became the basis for the refugee deal signed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016.
The deal stipulated that Ankara would take back every migrant who landed illegally from Turkey on the Greek islands. But for every Syrian brought back, the EU would resettle a Syrian refugee based in Turkey — thereby providing an incentive for refugees to remain in Turkey rather than risk the crossing to Greece. Also as part of the deal, the EU provides Turkey with financial help to cope with the influx of refugees it has faced in recent years.
The deal helped bring down the number of refugees reaching Europe across the Aegean, with a little more than 10,000 refugees arriving in Greece so far this year, compared to almost 160,000 during that period in 2016.
Knaus acknowledged that relations between the EU and Turkey had “deteriorated dramatically” over the last year. But he said the migration deal was holding up because “at the end of the day, it is based on mutual interests” and each side can see whether the other is keeping its end of the bargain.
When it comes to a deal with West African countries, however, Knaus has another blueprint in mind — a 1994 agreement between the United States and Cuba, in which the U.S. agreed to accept 20,000 Cubans per year if the government in Havana clamped down on an exodus of Cuban refugees.
Knaus said the EU should offer countries such as Nigeria financial incentives to take back asylum seekers whose applications are rejected — the vast majority. At the same time, African governments should be offered a quota of visas for workers from their country to come to Europe legally.
Current EU efforts focused on migration routes inside Africa would not be effective, Knaus said.
Late last year, the EU offered more than €610 million to impoverished Niger, a transit country along the main route into Libya, for help in keeping a lid on migration.
“Considering how incredibly complicated it was back in 2015 to stop the flow of migration within the European Union, it’s absurd to believe that we could do something similar with [African] partners, for example in Niger,” Knaus said. “What interest should African countries have — let alone the capacity — to play police for the European Union?”
Instead, countries should be provided with economic incentives to take back their citizens whose asylum applications have been rejected, Knaus said. If more people were sent back, this would also discourage their compatriots from trying to make the journey to Europe illegally.
For a long time, Turkey was not eager to cooperate closely with the European Union on migration, Knaus said — until the EU came up with a deal that offered Ankara something in return.