Europe, Africa leaders forge refugee deal
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In Paris on Monday, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Spain met the presidents of Niger and Chad - as well as Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s unity government. They agreed on a new policy of registering “vulnerable” refugees at reception centres in Africa before they could seek asylum in Europe.
War in Syria and conflict and poverty across Africa have caused a surge in migration over the past several years, prompting refugees and asylum seekers to pour into Europe, including along the deadly central Mediterranean route.
To curb the flow, European leaders like Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have long called for increased screening in Africa. In return, they have promised their African partners significant developmental aid.
Monday’s summit was a victory of sorts for European leaders, who pushed for guarantees on tightened African border checks, increased Libyan patrols in the Mediterranean, and a crackdown on aid groups that carry out water rescues, which governments say enable traffickers to continue dangerous smuggling practices.
While the meeting was sparse on other concrete details, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Chad, Niger and Libya agreed in principle to set up a mechanism to identify legitimate refugees who were fleeing war and persecution, and to use the UN to register them in Niger and Chad to prevent them being exploited by traffickers.
“At the core of it, it’s all about fighting illegal migration,” Merkel said.
The refugee crisis has put Paris and Rome at odds. Italy has accused France and other EU states of not sharing the refugee burden, and has also asked the EU Commission for more budget flexibility to help it tackle the crisis.
Nearly 120000 refugees, have entered Europe by sea so far this year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
More than 2400 have drowned while making the dangerous journey, often without enough food or water in overcrowded dinghies run by people smugglers.
“We are all committed to reducing the damage, the death of Africans in the desert, the death of Africans crossing the Mediterranean,” said Chad President Idriss Deby.
But refugee advocates were quick to reiterate the problems with what they consider a deeply flawed plan.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Sophia Wirsching, a migration consultant for Bread for the World, a Protestant aid organisation in Germany.
“Europe is attempting to shift its duty to countries that are not capable or willing to take on the responsibility for refugees.”
The migration issue continues to inflame domestic politics across the continent - and perhaps nowhere more so than Germany.
There, finding ways to address forced migration beyond Europe’s borders has taken on new urgency several weeks before a federal election that is serving as a referendum on Merkel and her decision two years ago not to close Germany’s borders to about a million refugees fleeing the Syrian war.
Polls show the long-serving, centre-right leader with a comfortable advantage as she works to assure voters that the rapid influx of asylum seekers was a one-time deal.
Earlier in the summer, Macron proposed a network of “hotspots” in Libya, where migrants would be evaluated for asylum before making the journey. Those deemed to be economic migrants would be turned back. The notion was harpooned by Human Rights Watch and prominent European humanitarian groups.
But some political analysts insist that implementing refugee processing on the African side of the Mediterranean is a necessary step. - Additional reporting by Reuters