A humanitarian vessel carrying 234 migrants, including 57 children, hovered for nearly three weeks in international waters. Eventually, the Ocean Viking, a ship sailing under the Norwegian flag and operated by French NGO SOS Méditerranée, was redirected to Toulon in France after Rome refused access to Italian ports. The incident caused a diplomatic spat between Italy and France.
“We have to keep in mind that a clear majority of the people arriving via this central Mediterranean route today do not need international protection,” said Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs. Many of these migrants mainly came from Egypt, Tunisia and Bangladesh and wanted to find a paying job in the EU, she added.
The bloc has struggled for years to agree on how to share out arriving migrants and asylum seekers. Ahead of the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council of November 25, 2022, the European Commission presented an Action Plan on the Central Mediterranean, proposing a series of measures to address the ongoing challenges along the route. This action plan aims to curb illegal migration across the Mediterranean Sea and to strengthen the solidarity and responsibility of the Member States. Cooperation with countries of origin and transit is to be intensified, irregular and unsafe migration is to be discouraged, and solutions in the area of search and rescue are to be offered. The Commission announced that similar action plans will be developed for migration routes across the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Balkans.
According to Commissioner Johansson, the action plan also seeks to accelerate the implementation of the solidarity mechanism, which was agreed upon by 19 EU member states in June of this year. Under this agreement, member states are to take in 8,000 refugees rescued on beaches or off the Mediterranean coasts of the southern EU member states by the end of June 2023.
But the dispute between France and Italy has already threatened the agreement. The new right-wing government in Rome would prefer not to allow private rescue ships carrying migrants to enter Italian ports at all. In retaliation, Paris said it would no longer take in 3,500 migrants from Italy and urged other EU countries to suspend their participation in the EU’s migrant relocation mechanism and adopt similar measures. Rome stated that some NGO ships were violating international law. Meanwhile, on November 18, France denied entry into the country to 123 out of the 234 migrants of the Ocean Viking. On November 25, EU interior ministers will also hold crisis talks to head off this controversy.
The issue of refugee distribution
In a joint statement, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Malta criticized other member states for not doing enough to share the burden of asylum seekers. They said only a small proportion of the migrants arriving in the four countries were being relocated under the current European system. According to the commission, only 117 migrants out of the 8,000 have been redistributed under the voluntary solidarity mechanism so far.
Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, said that for his country the solidarity mechanism had delivered “absolutely insufficient results.” He added that other states were not prepared to take on responsibility when ships with nearly 1,000 rescued migrants on board waited for days off the Italian coast for a port to be assigned. He cautiously welcomed the EU plan and stressed the importance of reviving the migrant distribution plan agreed upon in June.
European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper stated that there was a “clear, unequivocal obligation” to rescue people in danger at sea and no difference should be made between NGO ships and other vessels.
For Spain, the European Mediterranean countries have already demonstrated their flexibility when it comes to the implementation of effective procedures to help tackle irregular migration, improve returns and ensure better asylum system support. With regard to the voluntary solidarity mechanism, Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said that the system should be predictable, so that each country would be able to anticipate the obligations it had to meet. According to Spain, the only way to effectively manage migration flows in the long run is close cooperation between the countries of origin, transit and destination.
Germany and Belgium record high numbers of arrivals
German Ambassador to Rome Viktor Elbling commented in a Tweet on November 11: “Italy does a lot in terms of migration but it is not alone: 154,385 asylum seekers in Germany in the period Jan-Sep 2022, 110,055 in France, 48,935 in Italy. They are respectively 0.186 percent of the German population, 0.163 percent of the French population and 0.083 percent of the Italian population.”
So far this year, the German Federal Police has detected 75,934 unauthorized entries into Germany. In September, there were 12,700 unauthorized entries, and 13,400 in October. The last time Germany recorded five-digit monthly figures was during the migrant crisis in February 2016.
Meanwhile, Belgium has recently received more than 4,000 asylum applications per month and is having trouble finding enough accommodation for asylum seekers. For years, Belgium has been advocating a common European approach and is in favor of the EU’s migrant relocation mechanism, but on the condition that asylum seekers are actually registered in the country of arrival and that secondary movements are prevented.
The Belgian Secretary of State Nicole de Moor traveled to Congo last week and plans to visit Egypt. “We do this on a bilateral basis and it’s having an effect, but we get better results if the EU as a whole puts its collective weight in.” She particularly appreciated the emphasis the new action plan puts on cooperation with countries of origin and transit, as well as the discouragement of people who try to reach Europe but are unlikely to be accepted as asylum seekers.
A new crisis is brewing along the Western Balkan Route
In recent months, there has been a significant increase in the arrival of irregular migrants via the Western Balkan route, and “a large number of them come via Serbia, because they enter that country without visas and then proceed to the member states of the Union,” said Commissioner Johansson on November 18.
In response to pressure from EU countries, Serbia has aligned its visa policies with those of the EU for some countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The visa-free entry agreements with Tunisia and Burundi expired in November. Serbia will soon introduce visas with two more countries, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced, but he did not specify which. Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said during his visit to Belgrade on November 16: “Thank you the President of Serbia for advocating the end of this asylum tourism caused by visa liberalization for citizens of India, Tunisia and other countries. We had a large number of asylum seekers from India, Vučić reacted and did not leave Austria in the lurch.”
On November 16, Serbia, Hungary and Austria signed a memorandum on strengthening cooperation on migration and border protection, under which police officers of the three countries will work together.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia and Slovenia have become transit countries for migrants heading towards Western Europe. In BiH, there are currently about 2,600 migrants registered in reception centers, while about another 700 migrants mainly reside close to the EU border. Citizens of Burundi are among the three most numerous groups of arrivals, which is a direct consequence of the visa-free regime that the country had with BiH’s neighbor Serbia.
The authorities in BiH have identified the high-risk countries with which readmission agreements should be signed, but these countries are delaying the process. So far, there is an agreement only with Pakistan. BiH is responding much better to migration than in previous years, but even today the number of policemen protecting the state’s borders is still considered insufficient.
Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria – external border management in the Schengen area
Croatia recorded a sharp increase of 146 percent in illegal crossings, according to Žarko Katic, State Secretary in the Croatian Ministry of the Interior. And the countries of origin of the migrants flowing into Croatia have also changed. Traditionally, migrants entering Croatia came from the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa. This year, the top five countries of origin are Iraq, Burundi, Turkey, Afghanistan and Cuba.
Austrian Interior Minister Gerhard Karner caused concern in Croatia recently, saying he would oppose the extension of the Schengen area to Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. Austria was experiencing enormous migrant pressure, he added. This year, Austria has recorded around 100,000 migrants, of whom 75,000 were not previously registered in any of the other EU member states. However, in Zagreb on Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Nehammer said that Austria would support Croatia’s bid to join the Schengen area.
Croatia’s northwestern neighbor Slovenia also experienced a significant year-on-year increase of 160 percent to 21,467 illegal border crossings in the first 10 months of 2022. And most of these migrants came from countries like Burundi, India, Cuba, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. However, after Serbia aligned its visa policy with the EU, the number of Burundian and Tunisian migrants had already decreased, the Slovenian Ministry of the Interior said. Applications for international protection in Slovenia also multiplied to 21,452 in the first 10 months of the current year, up from just 4,174 for the same period of 2021. According to the latest data, only 167 applications for international protection were approved so far this year.
Even though Slovenia supports Croatia’s accession to the Schengen area, Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon said that the country would introduce border controls with Croatia if necessary. She said that Slovenia didn’t want to become a pocket for illegal migration.
Meanwhile, Schengen candidate Bulgaria has recorded an increasing number of migrants trying to illegally cross the EU external border from Turkey since the summer of 2022. In recent weeks, there have been daily accidents caused by smugglers and migrants. In September, a state of emergency was declared for the first time in three southern regions of Bulgaria due to increased migration pressure. Meanwhile, Europol has discussed the formation of joint border intervention teams with Sofia.
This article is published Fridays. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.