Two months after two tragedies off the Italian and Maltese coasts where hundreds of migrants died trying to reach European shores, Commissioner Cecilia Malmström has presented a communication identifying actions in five main areas: reinforced border surveillance; assistance and solidarity between Member States; fight against trafficking, smuggling and organised crime; legal ways for migrants to access Europe; and cooperation with Third Countries. The measures proposed by the EU Home Affairs Commissioner result from the work of the Commission-led Task Force Mediterranean which was set up in October 2013.
The Communication proposes to establish a coordinated approach to border surveillance operations in the Mediterranean, led by the EU Border Agency Frontex, and focusing on the main migratory routes, from Cyprus to Spain as of Spring 2014.
Human Rights Watch has stated that increasing border surveillance operations, through Eurosur or Frontex, will only save lives if Member States “are held to clear, binding guidelines about who must respond to situations of real or potential distress emphasizing that the paramount duty is to rescue rather than enforce sea borders.”
The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has highlighted that without a mechanism clearly determining who is responsible for rescuing boats in distress, situations of indecision between Member States can cause hundreds of deaths at sea.
The Commission invited the European Parliament and the Council to accelerate their negotiations on the proposal for a Regulation establishing rules for the surveillance of external sea borders in the context of Frontex operations. The Commission also highlighted that shipmasters helping migrants in distress at sea need to be reassured that they will not suffer any sanctions and that fast and safe disembarkation points will be available.
The communication also stresses that the Commission will explore further possibilities for protected entry in Europe and for opening legal channels for migrants to reach the territory in a regular manner. The move was welcomed by ECRE. “Allowing a legal route will help refugees and will play an important role in ending the smuggling of people,” said Michael Diedring, ECRE’s Secretary General. In the Spring of 2011, the Swiss authorities used such a model to facilitate the travel from Libya and Tunisia to Switzerland of around 200 Eritreans and other refugees fleeing violence in Libya.
The Commission also encouraged Member States to increase their current commitment on resettlement. “[Resettlement] is the single most effective short-term measure that Member States can do to help and to avoid for these very vulnerable people to take the dangerous route over the Mediterranean”, Malmström stated.
The communication also announced that the Commission is prepared to organise, in cooperation with UNHCR, a conference on resettlement of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria. The conference could take place in the first half of 2014 and encourage resettlement efforts among EU Member States and countries around the globe.