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Europe’s divisions over migration likely to be exposed as leaders meet

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Key Points
  • Migration will dominate a summit of EU leaders Thursday
  • Divisions are rife between the bloc’s 28 members over how they should tackle the crisis.
  • Migration policy could change at the summit.

The thorny issue of migration will dominate a summit of EU leaders Thursday with divisions rife between the bloc’s 28 members over how they should tackle the crisis.

The European Council, the EU’s decision-making body that is hosting leaders in Brussels, says that it is “intensifying efforts to establish an effective, humanitarian and safe European migration policy.

But countries like Greece and Italy that are at the forefront of the migration crisis — with both nations receiving thousands of migrants attempting to reach Europe by sea — feel that other European countries are not pulling their weight. Some, like those in Eastern Europe, have refused point-blank to cooperate with existing EU policies that are aimed at alleviating migratory pressures on the bloc’s southern members.

Migrants and refugees are transferred from the Topaz Responder ship run by Maltese NGO 'Moas' and the Italian Red Cross to the Spanish war ship Navarra, after being rescued off the coast of Libya on November 5, 2016.
ANDREAS SOLARO | AFP | Getty Images

How Europe should prevent migrants attempting the dangerous sea passage to reach its shores, how it should fairly “redistribute” migrants throughout the continent once they’ve arrived and whether to end the “Dublin III Regulation” — which means the first country of entry is responsible for their asylum claims — are also expected to be discussed.

That the summit is taking place several years after the peak of the crisis underlines that the region has been unable to deal with the issue properly, although the nature of the migration flows have changed somewhat. In 2015, over a million migrants entered the bloc, with many fleeing civil war in Syria and travelling up through Europe, via Greece and en route to Germany. Now, migration flows are concentrated on southwestern Europe with Spain and Italy seeing more migrant flows from African nations.

Although data from the United Nation’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) show that arrivals in the EU are on the decline, the numbers are still significant.

Current figures from the IOM show that the EU has seen 42,845 arrivals by sea so far in 2018 (there were 172,152 in 2017) with 972 people dead or missing. Italy has seen over 16,000 arrivals while Greece has seen 12, 942 — below the 13,462 that have arrived in Spain.

Thousands of people have died making the dangerous sea crossing in the last few years, although the subject of sea rescues is itself increasingly contentious. Italy’s new populist, anti-establishment government has started to refuse to allow migrant rescue ships operated by charities to dock at any of its ports, leaving vulnerable migrants stranded.

Fault lines

How to fairly distribute migrants arriving in the EU is one of the main sources of division among member states, with fault lines appearing in recent years over how to confront the crisis.

While Eastern European nations that have united to oppose wholesale migration, other countries like Italy and Austria now have anti-immigrant politicians in positions of power. France and Germany have also seen anti-immigrant parties, the Front National and Alternative for Germany, rise dramatically in popularity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition is also under pressure because of divisions over migration and anger at Merkel’s “open door” policy in 2015.

The EU devised a quota system in 2015 that aimed to distribute a total 160,000 migrants throughout the 28 nations in order to alleviate pressures on frontline countries, but the scheme was not successful and an alternative is expected to be debated on Thursday.

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The scheme was roundly rejected by eastern European nations Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — known as the Visegrad Four (V4) — who are pushing for a tougher EU stance on the issue. The four states also boycotted a mini-summit on migration this week that was attended by 16 EU leaders.

Thom Brooks, a law professor at Durham University, said in a note Tuesday that "the EU migration crisis might have started in summer 2015, but its effects are felt very much in 2018.” He added that Dublin III Regulation had exacerbated a divide between countries at the core and the border.

“Since many migrants will pass through the border countries first, the Dublin rules permit countries in the core to return them for any asylum processing at the border. This has raised both costs at (the) EU’s border and tensions,” he said, noting that political leaders have done “next to nothing to explain or justify the asylum rules their governments’ champion.”

Dublin III, Turkey and Libya

Brooks predicts Thursday’s talks to lead to the end of the Dublin III Regulation while another migration expert, Brad Blitz, told CNBC that he expected to see an enhanced deal between the EU and Turkey to prevent migrant flows, as well as action called for by Italy to build offshore migrant processing centers in Libya — the departure point for many migrants trying to reach the country.

“We won't see a change in migration policy but an attempted expansion of the EU-Turkey deal and Italy-Libya deal,” Brad Blitz, a professor at Middlesex University and director of the British Academy program on modern slavery and human trafficking, told CNBC Tuesday.

“The focus will be on containment and preventing people from reaching Europe where they may seek asylum. Hence, the idea of strengthening the role of the Libyan coastguard and the creation of offshore processing centers in southern Libya,” he added.

Migrants disembark from the Irish Navy vessel Le Niamh in the Sicilian harbour of Palermo, Italy.
Guglielmo Mangiapane | Reuters

The scheme with Turkey certainly appears to have worked to stem migrant flows, although it has created new migrant routes to Europe, alleviating migrant flows to Greece but increasing those to Italy. Whether Italy’s suggestion of offshore migration management will be palatable to other EU members — or acceptable on a human rights level — remains to be seen, however.

“The problem with the offshore centers is that migrants will need to be detained to make it work and that sets off all sorts of human rights alarm bells,” Blitz said.

“It means detaining people in Libya, a country with an appalling human rights record where detention, slavery and torture have been extensively reported. What is more, past attempts to use inducements in the hope of reducing flows has failed,” he added.

Summing up the EU’s response to the crisis, Blitz said it had “not been effective.”

“It has failed to press states to share responsibility and has sacrificed rights in the name of management ... The next result has been a patchwork of repressive policies,” he said.