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The "temporary solidarity mechanism" on relocation of people rescued at sea - what does it say?
27.9.19

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Germany, France, Italy and Malta have drafted a declaration (pdf) establishing a "predictable and efficient temporary solidarity mechanism" aimed at ensuring the "dignified disembarkation" of people rescued at sea in the Mediterranean. If those rescued are eligible for international protection they will be relocated to a participating EU member state within four weeks, while ineligible persons will be subject to "effective and quick return."

See: Joint declaration of intent on a controlled emergency procedure - voluntary commitments by member states for a predictable temporary solidarity mechanism (23 September 2019, pdf)

The mechanism set out in the declaration is designed to address "the need to protect human life and provide assistance to any person in distress," whilst preventing the emergence of any new irregular maritime routes into the EU. All signatories will be obliged to call on other EU and Schengen Member States to participate. Offers - or refusals - to do so are expected to come at the Justice and Home Affairs Council in Luxembourg on 8 October.

The mechanism

Signatories to the declaration will have to ensure that persons rescued on the high seas are disembarked "in a place of safety". Member states may also "offer an alternative place of safety on a voluntary basis". Where rescue is carried out by a state-owned vessel, disembarkation will take place in the territory of the flag State.

Following disembarkation, participating states should provide "swift relocation, which should not take longer than 4 weeks", a process which will be coordinated by the European Commission - as has been the case with recent voluntary relocations following rescue at sea.

The declaration requires participating states to declare pledges for relocation prior to disembarkation and "as a minimum, security and medical screening of all migrants and other relevant measures." This should be based on "standard operating procedures, building on and improving existing practices by streamlining procedures and the full use of EURODAC," the EU database of asylum-seekers' fingerprints, with "support of EU Agencies, e.g. on EURODAC registration and initial interviewing."

It is unknown to which standard operating procedures the text refers (Statewatch has previously published those applicable in the Italian 'hotspots' (pdf)), nor what precisely "streamlining procedures" may entail for individuals seeking international protection.

EU agencies Europol, Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) are present in the Greek hotspots, where detainees are not provided (pdf) with either interpreters or adequate information on removal procedures; and those in Italy, where the EU's own Fundamental Rights Agency has identified (pdf) a number of serious problems.

States may cease participation in the mechanism in cases of "disproportionate migratory pressure," to be calculated using two rather vague criteria: "limitations in reception capacities or a high number of applications for international protection." There is no further detail on how these will be determined.

The mechanism will be valid for no less than six months and may be renewed, although it could be terminated "in the case of misuse by third parties", a term with no further explanation. Furthermore, if within six months the number of relocated people rises "substantially", consultations between participating member states will begin - during which "the entire mechanism might be suspended."

At the same time, the text calls for "advance on the reform of the Common European Asylum System," which should provide a binding and permanent mechanism - if the member states can ever agree on such rules.

The announcement on the signing of the declaration by the four member states was welcomed by Amnesty International. Eva Geddie, Director of the European Institutions Office, said: "We hope this mechanism will put an end to the obscene spectacle of people left stranded on boats for weeks waiting to know where, or even if, they can disembark." The President of the European Parliament also welcomed the news. The devil, however, may be in the detail.

Return as a priority

Return "immediately after disembarkation," where applicable, is one of the commitments set out in paragraph 4. This seems to imply that some form of asylum assessment will take place at sea, an idea that has previously been dismissed as illegal and unworkable.

Return is emphasised as a priority again in paragraph 7, which recalls the operational support role of both Frontex and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in "the effective and quick return of those not eligible to international protection in the EU".

The use of "appropriate leverages, to ensure full cooperation of countries of origin," is encouraged. Using aid and trade policy as 'incentives' for non-EU states to readmit their own nationals has for some years now been high on the policy agenda.

Doublethink ahoy

The declaration also sets out certain requirements for "all vessels engaged in rescue operations", including "not to send light signals or any other form of communication to facilitate the departure and embarkation of vessels carrying migrants from African shores" and:

"not to obstruct the Search and Rescue operations by official Coast Guard vessels, including the Libyan Coast Guard, and to provide for specific measures to safeguard the security of migrants and operators."

Whether 'rescue' by the Libyan Coast Guard is compatible with "the security of migrants" is doubtful - return to Libya means a return to inhumane and degrading conditions and there is clear evidence of the Libyan Coast Guard knowingly endangering the lives of migrants in distress at sea.

EU governments are well aware of these issues. A recent document sent to national delegations by the Finnish Presidency of the Council highlighted that:

"Another major issue is that of migrants and refugees rescued or intercepted at sea being transferred to detention centres and the lack of traceability, transparency and accountability… The Libyan government has not taken steps to improve the situation in the centres. The government's reluctance to address the problems raises the question of its own involvement."

Beefing up the Libyan Coast Guard and aerial surveillance

The increasing role of the Libyan Coast Guard - and the maritime agencies of other states such as Morocco - is being deliberately enhanced by the EU. Finance and training is being provided whilst national governments are placing increasing pressure on private rescue operations.

Any member state that signs up to the declaration will be making a commitment to continue "enhancing the capacities of coast guards of southern Mediterranean third countries," at the same time as encouraging "full respect of human rights in those countries."

One key means for assisting with the activities of non-EU coast guard agencies is "EU-led aerial surveillance":

"in order to ensure that migrant boats are detected early with a view to fight migrant smuggling networks, human trafficking and related criminal activity and minimizing the risk of loss of life at sea."

The EU's Operation Sophia now has no boats and is largely relying on aerial surveillance to carry out its work. A recent internal Operation Sophia document seen by Statewatch says that:

"Aerial assets will be used to enhance maritime situational awareness and the information collected will only be shared with the responsible regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC)."

That is likely to be the Libyan MRCC. According to a March 2019 letter (pdf) from the European Commission to Frontex's Executive Director, the Italian MRCC also acts as a "communication relay" for its Libyan counterpart.

Member states are urged to contribute assets to these surveillance operations. It is noteworthy that the declaration contains no call for states to provide vessels or other equipment for search and rescue operations.

Further reading

The ongoing disasters in Libya, Statewatch News, 17 September 2019

"Migration control, not rescue": squeezing search and rescue in the Mediterranean by Jane Kilpatrick, September 2019

The Commission and Italy tie themselves up in knows over Libya by Yasha Maccanico, June 2019 (pdf)

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