European Union leaders declared victory Friday, claiming to have set aside major differences over how best to handle migrant arrivals as they commissioned new plans to screen people in North Africa for eligibility to enter Europe.
But even as they met for a second day in Brussels, the coast guard in Libya — the main jumping off point for most migrants trying to reach Europe — said around 100 people were missing and feared dead in the Mediterranean Sea after their smugglers’ boat capsized.
Bickering over who should take responsibility for the tens of thousands rescued from the Mediterranean has undermined EU unity and threatens the future of cross-border business and travel inside Europe.
At the summit, the EU leaders agreed upon a “new approach” to managing those who are plucked from the water. They would be “disembarked” from rescue ships into EU nations that agree to share responsibility for handing migration with the EU’s main point-of-entry countries like Spain, Italy and Greece but also to centers in North Africa and possibly the Balkans.
“A complete approach was adopted,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after a night of haggling to address vehement demands from Italy’s new anti-migrant populist government.
“We are protecting better. We are cooperating more. And we are reaffirming our principles. All hastily-made solutions, be they solely national ones or a betrayal of our values that consists in pushing people off to third countries, were clearly set aside,” he said.
Even new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose anti-Europe government has rocked the EU’s political landscape, said: “On the whole, we can say we are satisfied.”
“Italy is no longer alone, as we requested,” he said.
Libya is one of the countries where the EU is considering setting up its “disembarkation platforms,” along with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. Still, details of the plans are sketchy. The EU’s executive Commission now has the job of drafting something more concrete in coordination with the U.N.’s refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration, which would prefer to operate in European migration centers only.
The UNHCR cautiously welcomed the EU’s new plan but cautioned that it must be made clearer and said African involvement via the African Union regional bloc in the plan was “indispensable.”
Leonard Doyle, an IOM spokesman, said his agency was “very pleased at the solidarity and consensus” that emerged from the EU summit in Brussels, in particular with front-line states like Italy.
Doyle said he believed that most of the “disembarkation centers” planned by the EU would be in Europe, though he said it was up to the EU to determine which countries would host them.
UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said the refugee agency is “still awaiting the legal analysis” of the new EU migration plan but would certainly welcome greater EU collaboration on handling asylum claims.
He noted that for the fifth year in a row the “grim milestone” of 1,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has been crossed already — and it’s still only in the first half of 2018.
But migrant experts and humanitarian aid groups fear the EU agreement is a political smoke screen aimed at addressing the concerns of resurgent anti-migrant parties in Europe and which will only leave vulnerable people once again at risk.
“At a time when EU leadership on global issues is needed more than ever, European heads of state and government continue to try to offload their responsibilities onto poorer countries outside the EU,” said Oxfam migration policy adviser Raphael Shilhav.
He said it looks like the EU is planning more “de facto detention centers” and warned that “this approach to migration is a recipe for failure, and directly threatens the rights of women, men and children on the move.”
Imogen Sudbery at the International Rescue Committee said the new “disembarkation platforms” raise more questions than answers.
“Would this approach be compatible with international law? Would those apprehended be transferred to the nearest safe port? Crucially, under which country’s law would claims be assessed? Who would be responsible for those whose claims are upheld? We need clarity on this,” she said.
While the EU summit left the fate of those making the dangerous water crossing in doubt, it has thrown Germany a political lifeline. The results may have saved Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, as her coalition ally was demanding a tougher line on migrants than the more welcoming policies she has preferred so far.
On the seas, there was skepticism. The captain of a ship operated by the Spanish Proactiva humanitarian group worries that the EU-funded and trained Libyan coast guard might now be recognized as part of the Mediterranean rescue apparatus. He said having the Libyan coast guard involved simply further endangered vulnerable migrants.
“For months now, they have been presented as an official body, formal, very well trained and legal. And these are the same people who have shot at us, who have kidnapped us,” said Astral Captain Riccardo Gatti. “All of this is theater.”
Libya has emerged as a major transit point to Europe for those fleeing poverty and civil war elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Traffickers have exploited Libya’s chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
On Friday, Libyan coast guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim told The Associated Press that 14 migrants were rescued in waters east of the capital, Tripoli.