Frontex, Italy and North Africa

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Over the last few years, Europe's southern borders have been increasingly 'outsourced' to countries such as Morocco, Libya and Egypt in order to try and prevent migrants reaching Europe. The current wave of protest in North Africa and the Middle East that has in both Tunisia and Egypt led to the ousting of dictators seems likely to lead to significant developments in European policy towards the Mediterranean.

However, rather than taking action that seeks to secure the rights of those crossing the Mediterranean and providing protection to those who need it, the current dominant approach - based primarily on the 'securitisation' of the Mediterranean region - is being accelerated. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called on European countries to 'open their borders' to those fleeing from the violence in Libya, where the likely collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has led to the repudiation by Italy of a friendship treaty that was the basis for the interception and return by the Italian authorities of vessels carrying migrants. It seems the repudiation has taken place to allow NATO the use of military bases in southern Italy, something that was prohibited under the agreement. However, given long-standing Italian enmity towards immigrants arriving through North Africa and Libya in particular, it seems questionable whether we will also see the repudiation of enforced returns of and denial of entry to migrants. An opening of the borders has probably not been one of the main issues on the minds of decision-makers in Rome, Brussels, and elsewhere.

The situation in Tunisia has led to thousands of people arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa seeking protection, while significant numbers of Egyptians have also left their country after Hosni Mubarak was forced from power. The Italian Interior Minister has warned of an overwhelming movement of people if the situation in Libya worsens further, stating that there could be 'an invasion of one million, 1.5 million that would bring any country to its knees.' As is appropriate for those who think in terms of invasions, the response by both Italy and a number of its fellow EU member states has been decidedly security-focussed. The Italian government requested permission for Italian police to be deployed in Tunisia in order to try and prevent people leaving; this was turned down in no uncertain terms by the Tunisian authorities.

However, Tunisia has nevertheless obliged the Italian government by deploying its own troops to the coast in order to try and stop people leaving the country, all of who it seems have been declared 'illegal immigrants', at least according to a source from the Tunisian military. Whether those landing in Italy may have a claim to refugee status or not does not at the moment seem to be an issue.

This is also borne out in the approach taken by the European Union. On February 20th, Joint Operation Hermes was launched by Frontex, the aim of which is to:

'gather information necessary needed for analysis, to make assumptions concerning migrants' nationalities, and to enable early detection and prevention of possible criminal activities at the EU external borders.'

The operation was initially due to begin in June, but has been brought forward by four months in order to fulfil a request made by the Italian authorities for assistance with the influx of migrants from North Africa. This has no doubt put enormous pressures on the Italian authorities, with the Contrada d'Imbriacola camp on Lampedusa being re-opened in the wake of an announcement by the Italian government of a humanitarian emergency. Interestingly, this camp was previously closed after the signing of Italy's now-repudiated agreement with Libya allowed the straightforward refoulement of migrants found in international waters, bypassing the need to provide protection and the evaluation of claims for asylum. Considering the current political and social situation in North Africa, it would be hoped that such a policy would be discontinued until it can be confirmed that it is safe for individuals to return to their countries of origin, should they wish to do so.

Unfortunately, this seems unlikely. The next step of Operation Hermes involves 'focusing on organising return operations to the countries of origin'. This will be organised jointly between Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Malta and Spain (who are providing the naval and aerial aspects for Operation Hermes). Whether this will be possible considering the current situations in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt is as yet unknown, but there have been few qualms in the past over returning people to face brutality, poverty and the further denial of their rights. It is probably also likely that any new governments coming to power in North Africa will face significant pressure to continue the border policies of their predecessors in return for assistance from their European neighbours. It may be that new governments with new priorities in North Africa are able to make a principled stand against the demands of the European Union.

The organisation Migreurop has stated that '[f]ar from raising fears and encouraging a behaviour of rejection, these aspirations [for human rights, freedom, democracy, etc.] should be an opportunity for a new mode of relations between Europe and its neighbours from the South.' Considering the current response of the European Union to the situation in the Mediterranean region, it seems that a new mode of relations may not be as forthcoming.


5. Known in its long-winded form as the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union

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