On 18 March 2016, the European Council and Turkey reached an agreement aimed at stopping the flow of irregular migration via Turkey to Europe. According to the EU-Turkey Statement, all new irregular migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Turkey to the Greek islands and whose applications for asylum have been declared inadmissible should be returned to Turkey. In return for Turkish help, the EU pledged 6 billion euros on refugee projects in Turkey. The EU says the money has since been delivered, but Ankara disputes this and has asked for more.
Although the deal with Turkey helped contain the 2015 crisis, rights groups condemned it for undercutting international humanitarian law on providing safe haven for refugees, and aggravating the suffering of those already in distress.
Europe cannot be caught unprepared twice
Nearly half of the 56,000 refugee and migrant arrivals in Europe this year have come through the Greek islands, according to the UN. Some move on to Spain 30,000, Italy at nearly 8,000, Malta at close to 1,600 and Cyprus at about 800.
Relative to population size, however, Cyprus is currently under the heaviest pressure. Cyprus, Greece and Bulgaria said in a separate document at the ministerial meeting that the situation bore ‘alarming elements of an emerging crisis’.
Maria Ohisalo, the interior minister of Finland, said the EU must address the situation in both the eastern Mediterranean as well as along the sea routes linking Africa to Italy and Malta. Europe cannot be caught unprepared for a second time…
The EU will have to consider positively the allocation of further funds to those countries of the broader region of the Eastern Mediterranean route affected by immense migratory flows.’ She noted that sorely needed reform of the EU’s asylum system “has been stuck for years”.
At a meeting of EU interior ministers, only Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal offered to take part in the “fast-track” plan drawn up by Germany, France, Italy and Malta, which would screen migrants, relocate asylum seekers and return people who do not apply or qualify for asylum, all within four weeks. Rome and Valletta will try to enroll more EU peers in a migrant relocation scheme they agreed with France and Germany last month for migrants rescued at sea.
The plan was largely seen as a political gesture towards Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who adopted a more EU-friendly tone after winning a general election that saw the ouster of the staunchly anti-immigrant Matteo Salvini. Seehofer has said Germany could take in a quarter of migrants who reach Italy by sea. Rescue boats have repeatedly been stranded in the sea for weeks this summer as EU states were bickering over who should host the people onboard.
Countries refusing to offer help
A large majority of European Union member countries have refused to back a plan to quickly get migrants off boats in the Mediterranean Sea and distribute them among willing EU partners. Those opposed to accommodating the new arrivals are not forced to do so, which puts more pressure on those countries willing to take in migrants.
The refusal of Hungary, Poland, and their ex-communist peers on the eastern flank of the EU to help the ‘front-line’, Mediterranean member states by hosting some migrants have eroded the bloc’s unity since 2015.
The stance taken by the two countries resulted in standoffs that kept rescued migrants at sea for weeks until other EU nations pledged to take at least some of the people seeking safety or better lives in Europe. Earlier, France’s European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin, had claimed that several countries were willing to accept asylum seekers. “I think there are around 10 countries that are ready to play the game. Perhaps others,” she told reporters. “We are going to be able to say that when a boat arrives, we know who to call and that there are countries ready to send teams in.”
Preventing a stand off at sea
But Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese said that those who agreed to take part “are those three or four states that had already said they were available, like Luxembourg and Ireland.” She said she hoped that more EU partners would sign on by the end of the year.
Amnesty migration researcher, Matteo de Bellis said “A strong agreement will help save lives and demonstrate that EU countries are committed to working together to uphold basic values and international obligations,” Human rights group Amnesty International underlined that it is important to avoid “yet another obscene standoff at sea”.