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Why Some E.U. States Want Hotspots in the Sahel

The case for offshore processing of asylum seekers is made in humanitarian language but it conceals another agenda, say researchers Marie Walter-Franke and Shani Bar-Tuvia. States are seeking to trade legal obligations for humanitarian gestures.

Written by Shani Bar-Tuvia, Marie Walter-Franke Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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TOPSHOT - A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coast on June 27, 2017. TAHA JAWASHI/AFP/Getty Images

The idea of sifting refugees from economic migrants far from Europe’s borders is an old idea gaining renewed currency. The prospect of processing camps in the Sahel came a step closer in August when France, Germany, Spain and the E.U. sealed a migration deal with Niger, Chad and Libya.

The agreement foresees camps where the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) would identify refugees for resettlement to Europe. This would be the closest the E.U. has come to processing asylum seekers beyond the borders of its member states in “hotspots,” as such facilities have come to be known in Italy and Greece. Their opponents see them as part of efforts to push the reality of migration beyond E.U. borders, a process known as externalizing. Hotspot supporters claim they will prevent further loss of life at sea.

Setting up European offshore processing facilities would push externalization even further, following in the footsteps of controversial U.S. and Australian policies. At its core, this approach enables states to make asylum a matter of sovereign discretion and to escape both binding international obligations toward refugees and the oversight that their own courts would provide for asylum seekers able to launch their claim from within the country.

The U.S. has been processing asylum seekers in international waters on board coast guard vessels since the 1980s, and in Guantanamo Bay and Caribbean countries since the 1990s. Australia sent asylum seekers to camps on the Pacific Island nation of Nauru and on Papua New Guinea under terrible conditions. This policy was reinstated in 2013 to even worse effect.

People risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean because they have no alternative. Creating safe and legal pathways to Europe is thus essential. For refugees, UNHCR-sponsored resettlement is a safer option than reaching Europe on their own, but only a few get access to that option. Offshore processing of asylum claims, backed by a sizable commitment from E.U. states to receive successful claimants, might seem a better deal for refugees at first glance.

E.U. policymakers defend cooperation with Turkey and Libya on the basis that it prevents loss of life at sea. The same argument is now used in support of external hotspots. Australia proudly reports that since 2013 there have been no drownings in Australian waters.

Proponents of hotspots also argue that European offshore processing would differ from the maligned Australian efforts. Refugees who have already reached Europe would not be sent to external hotspots; conditions at the hotspots would not be as harmful as in Manus and Nauru; and recognized refugees would be resettled to Europe. So why the concern?

To achieve the goals of providing safe legal pathways to Europe, hotspots are not necessary. Simply increasing resettlement would already go a long way. So far, however, E.U. member states have welcomed very limited numbers of refugees through resettlement. Only 17 countries have resettlement programs, many of which are short term. In 2016, Europe (including Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) took only 18,175 resettled refugees, or 10 percent of the global total. Between 2011 and 2015, some 90,000 people were resettled to Europe (including Norway). The trend is toward an increase, and the European Commission has proposed an annual target of 50,000, but these numbers remain unsatisfactory in the face of European capabilities and global needs, now estimated at over 1.2 million.

Even if external hotspots should be accompanied by a substantial resettlement program, this approach entails significant risks for refugees. First, the containment of the issue of protection and asylum abroad might lead to an “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon with decreased public interest. The emphasis on preventing death at sea is revealing: The goal is to decrease the pressure to act following tragedies on Europe’s shores. In addition, the geographic disconnect is likely to lead to low reception standards at the hotspots, in the same way as it has at Australian processing centers.

Secondly, a resettlement-based offshore processing system linked to tougher border and security policies – like the Sahel agreement or the E.U. Turkey-Deal – means that protection becomes a matter of full national discretion. States seek to increase their control over the quantity of people granted protection by limiting access to their territory.

But humanitarian gestures are likely to be insufficient and politically contingent. The changeable nature of resettlement commitments has just been demonstrated by the U.S., where the new administration slashed the annual quota to a historic low.

Would the E.U. do better? Announcements such as France’s 10,000 resettlement places for 2018–19 look small in the global context. Germany’s policies, such as the moratorium on family reunification for war refugees with temporary protection status and its hushed agreement with Greece to set a monthly cap on the number of migrants transferred from Greece under Dublin family provisions, all aim to reduce refugee resettlement. The internal battle over the E.U.’s relocation system demonstrated that not all member states would comply with a resettlement quota.

Thirdly, resettlement entails control not only on quantity but also on “quality.” States can pick and choose whom they regard as eligible for protection. This might mean costly and discriminatory screening, as well as exclusion of persons in need of protection based on their nationality or religion.

The E.U. is considering resettling only from key transit countries on the route to Europe, such as Turkey, Libya, Niger and Chad, not from countries who need support the most, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Uganda or Kenya. Lucky refugees will not be chosen according to their vulnerability or the conditions in their host countries, but according to the E.U.’s political needs.

If E.U. states do not meet their side of the bargain – resettling recognized refugees – the countries hosting the hotspots will be left to clear up. Above all, this means that the overall balance of incentives will not change. In the absence of serious legal pathways, the dangerous journey to Europe will remain a better option for refugees and migrants.

The external hotspot idea replaces obligations under international law with voluntary humanitarian gestures. It undermines the institution of asylum and confirms state sovereignty and control over migratory flows. This is to say nothing of the erosion of any agency for the refugees themselves, let alone the likely conditions of hotspots, considering the human rights situation in many of the countries expected to host them.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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