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Al Jazeera | 29.06.2018

Humanitarian agencies fear vague deal will leave vulnerable people at risk as 100 go missing in boat sinking off Libya.

Humanitarian agencies and rights groups have denounced a hard-fought but vaguely worded European Union deal on migration, announced just as another boat sinking off Libya led to the apparent drowning of at least 100 people.

The agreement, sealed early on Friday in a tense Brussels summit after a night of haggling, appeared to be aimed at preventing entry for even the most vulnerable people, Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF), said in a statement.

„The only thing European states appear to have agreed on is to block people at the doorstep of Europe regardless of how vulnerable they are, or what horrors they are escaping,“ said Karline Kleijer, MSF’s emergencies chief.

She also accused the deal of aiming to „demonise non-governmental search and rescue operations“.

The 28 leaders agreed to consider setting up „disembarkation platforms“ outside the bloc, most likely in North Africa, in a bid to discourage migrants boarding EU-bound boats.

No third country has so far offered to host these reception centres, where authorities would distinguish between irregular migrants and asylum seekers admissible into the EU.

According to the EU deal, member countries could also set up processing centres – but only on a voluntary basis – to determine whether the arrivals returned home as economic migrants or were admitted as refugees in willing states.

Kleijer was especially critical of the likelihood that migrants would be sent to chaotic situations in Libya, where refugees have faced abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

„Without batting an eyelid, they have formalised – through financing and training – the use of the Libyan coastguard to intercept people and return them to Libya,“ she said.

„European governments do this fully in the knowledge that these people will be sent to arbitrary detention and subject to extreme abuse.“

Kleijer warned that the EU’s „actions block and obstruct us from doing the work EU governments are failing to do, all the while dehumanising people in need“.

„Any deaths caused by this are now at their hands,“ she said.

Libya is one of the countries in which the EU is considering setting up its „disembarkation platforms,“ along with Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. However, details are still vague.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cautiously welcomed the EU’s new plan but cautioned that it must be made clearer and said African involvement via the African Union regional bloc in the plan was „indispensable“.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley noted that for the fifth year in a row the „grim milestone“ of 1,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has been crossed already – and it’s still only in the first half of 2018.

The Libyan coastguard said on Friday that about 100 people were missing and feared dead after their boat capsized off the coast of the country. Fourteen others were rescued after being picked up from the sea.

‚Satisfied and proud‘

EU leaders, however, praised the plan as an achievement.

In a final statement full of convoluted language designed to appease the divergent views, the leaders agreed to restrict migrant movement within the bloc but made clear virtually all of their pledges would be carried out on a „voluntary basis“ by member states.

They also agreed to tighten their external border and increase financing for Turkey, Morocco and other North African states to prevent migration to Europe.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, whose far-right League party campaigned to bar migrants fleeing Africaand expel those already in Italy, said he was „satisfied and proud of our government’s results in Brussels“.

„Finally, Europe has been forced to discuss an Italian proposal… [and] finally Italy is no longer isolated and has returned to being a protagonist,“ he said in a statement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded differences remained on an issue that threatens her political career, telling reporters the EU still had „a lot of work to do to bridge the different views“.

Merkel was given an ultimatum by her interior minister to reach a European deal on migration at the summit or face unilateral action that explicitly went against her wishes, in a political crisis that threatened to bring an early end to her fourth coalition government.

For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters that „a complete approach was adopted“.

„We are protecting better. We are cooperating more. And we are reaffirming our principles. All hastily-made solutions, be they solely national ones or a betrayal of our values that consists in pushing people off to third countries, were clearly set aside,“ he said.

Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from the summit in Brussels, said that „if this was a success, it was only in that it staved off the apparent imminent collapse talk of the EU under the weight of migration.

„But in doing so, it gave more way to the populist right wing in Europe, a further retreat from the liberal values the EU is so fond of proclaiming,“ he added.

„As ever, the final communique was very long on wishes and very short of promises about how to accomplish them. This may have averted a crisis now, but Europe remains a political unit deeply unhappy.“

Political smokescreen

The tensions at the summit underscored the bloc’s deeper divisions in dealing with migration, even as arrivals are significantly lower compared with 2015.

Migrant experts and humanitarian aid groups expressed fear that the EU agreement is a political smokescreen aimed at addressing the concerns of resurgent anti-migrant parties in Europe and which will only leave vulnerable people once again at risk.

„At a time when EU leadership on global issues is needed more than ever, European heads of state and government continue to try to offload their responsibilities onto poorer countries outside the EU,“ said Oxfam migration policy adviser Raphael Shilhav.

Shilhav said it looks like the EU is planning more „de facto detention centres“ and warned that, „This approach to migration is a recipe for failure, and directly threatens the rights of women, men and children on the move.“

Imogen Sudbery at the International Rescue Committee said the new „disembarkation platforms“ raise more questions than answers.

„Would this approach be compatible with international law? Would those apprehended be transferred to the nearest safe port? Crucially, under which country’s law would claims be assessed? Who would be responsible for those whose claims are upheld? We need clarity on this,“ Sudbery said.

On the seas, there was also scepticism. The captain of a ship operated by the Spanish Proactiva humanitarian group worries that the EU-funded and trained Libyan coastguard might now be recognised as part of the Mediterranean rescue apparatus. He said having the Libyan coastguard involved simply further endangered vulnerable migrants.

„For months now, they have been presented as an official body, formal, very well trained and legal. And these are the same people who have shot at us, who have kidnapped us,“ said Astral Captain Riccardo Gatti. „All of this is theatre.“

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