The European Commission is trying to create guidelines for NGO boats rescuing migrants off European coasts as part of a plan to reduce the number of asylum seekers heading to the continent.
The plan, unveiled Monday by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, comes amid a public row between France and Italy’s new right-wing government over arriving migrants and the NGO boats that often rescue them at sea.
After days of pleading to be allowed to stop in Italy, one of these migrant rescue boats headed for France instead – sparking anger with Paris and debate over the role of NGOs in the process.
The Commission’s plan doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but it does aim to focus EU negotiations. In addition to the proposal to set guidelines for NGO ships, it also suggests greater coordination with African and Asian countries for migrant returns and an increased role for the EU in this process. It also calls on EU countries to implement a new plan to voluntarily relocate migrants to the bloc once they arrive.
Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas first revealed the plan was in the works earlier this month in an interview with POLITICO.
EU interior ministers will meet in an emergency session on Friday afternoon to discuss the proposals. Although the meeting was called because of the dispute between Paris and Rome, the interior ministers are expected to touch on a number of other issues, including the increase in the number of migrants from the Western Balkans and the overcrowded migration centers of countries such as Belgium and Austria.
Migration is one of the most difficult documents for the EU: The bloc has repeatedly tried and failed to reform the asylum procedure since the migration crisis of 2015-2016.
Many diplomats were skeptical that this time would be different, given that the Commission’s “action plan” was drawn up on short notice and contained mostly ideas that had already been considered for a long time.
According to one diplomat, the document is “a repetition of what should have already happened”.
The mission notes that more than 90,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in the Central Mediterranean region so far in 2022, which means an increase of more than 50 percent compared to 2021. The document says that these people are mainly coming from Libya and Tunisia, and they are mainly leaving this country. Egypt, Tunisia and Bangladesh.
Many of these people do not automatically qualify for international protection based on whether they face a “serious risk of harm” in their home countries, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters on Monday.
Therefore, the final plan proposes strengthening relations with non-EU countries by coordinating joint diplomatic efforts to facilitate the return of migrants who cannot obtain international protection status. In 2021, only 20 percent of migrants were returned to their home countries after arriving in the EU.
Some diplomats believe the proposal could be a step forward, noting that a similar plan to better coordinate diplomatic efforts has helped stem a recent influx of migrants from Belarus pushed across the EU border.
But on the most controversial issue, the plan for the role of NGO ships does not offer much hope. Italy and France have been at loggerheads over the issue since earlier this month after Rome banned the Ocean Viking ship, operated by a French NGO, from boarding and disembarking 230 migrants.
Eventually, France allowed the ship to dock at one of its ports, while suspending plans to take 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy, further straining relations between the two countries.
A key point of contention is whether countries should take responsibility for NGO ships registered under their domains and the migrants they rescue. Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Malta, as well as Italy, argue that the “flag states” of these NGOs do indeed have a role to play.
The commission’s action plan highlights this possible role in calling for “discussions within the International Maritime Organization on the need for a specific framework and guidelines for ships engaged in search and rescue activities”, while also calling for “better coordination between ships”. littoral and flag states”.
Johansson said talks were necessary, noting that “the role of private vessels operating at sea is a scenario that still lacks significant clarity,” adding that “these current issues were not thought of when the law of the sea was first agreed.”
However, he emphasized that this is a topic that EU countries should pay attention to, not the EU executive.
The action plan also calls on EU members to speed up the voluntary resettlement pact agreed by several countries last June. He emphasized that although various countries promised to accept 8,000 migrants, only about 100 migrants have been resettled so far.
The document also proposes to allocate around 600 million euros to North African countries to stem the flow of migrants to the EU.