• The European Union has signed a €7.4 billion agreement with Egypt amid efforts to expand its externalisation strategy and despite concerns over the EU’s possible complicity in human rights abuses.
  • With famine imminent in the Gaza Strip, EU leaders have reiterated their calls for Israel to allow free, unimpeded, and safe humanitarian access to all people in need.
  • An “action plan” obtained by Statewatch has revealed the different measures mentioned in the controversial EU-Tunisia deal targeting non-Tunisian nationals as well as Tunisian nationals to “control migration”.
  • The EU and its member states continue funding the so-called Libyan Coast Guard despite a long record of violence against migrants and those assisting them.

On 12 March, the European Commission (EC) adopted a communication outlining its achievements in the area of migration and asylum over the last four years. In its communication, the EC highlighted its engagement with international partners in a Team Europe approach to address the root causes of migration, fight migrant smuggling and promote legal pathways. It also referred to the “comprehensive partnerships” it had developed with many of the countries of origin and transit to the EU, including recent initiatives with Tunisia, Mauritania and Egypt. The EC also underlined its intention to “continue to strengthen the external dimension of migration by continuing to invest in strong comprehensive partnerships with third countries”.

The EC President Ursula von der Leyen and a number of EU Member State leaders, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, were present at the signing of the €7.4 billion joint declaration with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on 17 March. This agreement reportedly aims to boost co-operation in several areas, including renewables and trade, in exchange for a financial boost to help Egypt tackle its high inflation. As part of the deal, €5 billion will be made available in the form of concessional loans, €1.8 billion as investments and €600 million as grants of which €200 million will be used to address migration issues. The EU will also provide some €200 million to “assist Egypt on migration-related programs that entail developing a holistic approach to migration including legal migration pathways in line with national competences, and mobility schemes such as the Talent Partnerships, tackling the root causes of irregular migration, combating smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons, strengthening border management, and ensuring dignified and sustainable return and reintegration”. While Meloni hailed the EU-Egypt accord as a chance to give “residents of Africa” a chance  “not to emigrate” to Europe and Von der Leyen described it as a “new milestone” in the EU’s co-operation with Egypt, human rights organisations and politicians have long criticised the EU’s expanding externalisation strategy implemented via deals which lack safeguards on human rights, expose migrants to brutal conditions in camps and put money into the hands of autocrats. The director of ECRE member organisation Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, Eve Geddie, said about Egypt: “Thousands languish unjustly behind bars in horrific conditions solely for exercising their human rights or following grossly unfair trials. Hundreds of death sentences continue to be handed down annually, while enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment remain pervasive and are committed with impunity”. “Egyptian authorities routinely arrest and arbitrarily detain refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in cruel and inhumane conditions, and unlawfully deport them, without due process or the opportunity to claim asylum, to countries where they risk facing serious human rights violations,” she added. The Greens in the European Parliament wrote on X that the deal would “lead to more suffering financed by the EU”. Commenting on the deal in his daily brief from Human Rights Watch, Andrew Stroehlein wrote: “These so-called leaders of Europe are behaving in the most appalling manner. They fear and despise desperate people fleeing war and oppression so much, they are literally paying brutal dictators to abuse them just so the desperate people don’t reach Europe,”. Additionally, Tineke Strik MEP wrote on X: “These deals won’t lead to less migration. They will lead to more violence against migrants, more repression, and more dissidents trying to escape”. The European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said that the issue of human rights should be taken into account before finalising any such co-operation, including outlining redress in case of violations. O’Reilly also said that she was not taking concrete action on the Egypt agreement since her office had yet to receive any formal complaints, adding that “she was considering launching a probe into a similar EU deal with Tunisia sealed last year.”

The announcement of the Egypt deal comes at a time when EU leaders, including members of the delegation, are divided in their responses towards war crimes, crimes against humanity and the risk of genocide against Palestinians after more than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip. “While Belgium has increased support to UNRWA and has been advocating for a ceasefire, the European Commission, Italy and Austria risk contributing to the starvation of Gaza’s population through their failure to fully reinstate funding for UNRWA, cease all export of arms and ammunitions to Israel or call for an immediate ceasefire”, Amnesty International stated. While the EC President said that the EU would continue working with Egypt and other partners to channel humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip saying “there can be no forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza”, new analysis by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) has raised the alert of “imminent” famine as all of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.23 million is facing high levels of acute food insecurity and half of them (1.11 million people) are expected to face catastrophic (IPC Phase 5) conditions, (i.e. the most severe level on the IPC Acute Food Insecurity scale). Following this assessment, on 18 March, EU High Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič issued a statement highlighting that the outcome indicates “the unfolding of the worst possible forecast for Gaza”. The statement underlined that the IPC analysis is “unprecedented” as “No IPC analysis has ever recorded such levels of food insecurity anywhere in the world”. “Hunger cannot be used as a weapon of war. What we are seeing is not a natural hazard but a manmade disaster, and it is our moral duty to stop it,” they stated and urged Israel to allow free, unimpeded, and safe humanitarian access to all people in need and to co-operate with relevant humanitarian agencies. On 19 March, more than 200 civil society organisations (CSOs) sent an open letter to European leaders, including the EC President, in which they demanded the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement in light of the violation of human rights by the State of Israel. The signatories wrote that these human rights violations, which started long before 2023, “constitute a violation of the “essential elements” clauses which state that the Agreement is conditional upon the parties’ respect for human rights and democratic principles”. They also wrote: “What is currently happening in Gaza is the consequence of a political and moral failure of the international community. Suspension of the Association Agreement over the violation of the Agreement’s human rights clauses would send a strong message that the EU’s commitment to human rights is more than just rhetoric”.

Statewatch has obtained an “action plan” laying out the objectives and activities of the EU’s co-operation on migration with Tunisia. The document covers the main developments since the signature of the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding in July 2023 and lists the measures addressing potential migration from Tunisia to the Schengen zone while making a distinction between measures addressed to non-Tunisian nationals and those addressed to Tunisian nationals. For non-Tunisian nationals, the main objective is “preventing irregular departures from, as well as irregular arrivals to Tunisia” as well as strengthening anti-smuggling efforts and facilitating return and reintegration. However, for Tunisian nationals, the main objective is to increase the return and readmission of those of them who are deemed to be irregularly staying in the EU to Tunisia under the “assisted voluntary return” and “reintegration projects” after their forced returns. Meanwhile, dozens of CSOs signed a joint statement condemning the normalisation of violations of refugee rights in Tunisia. “While cooperation on migration with the EU continues to strengthen, Tunisian authorities continue to blatantly violate their human rights obligations. Both parties must stop any cooperation that harms the lives and dignity of people,” the statement reads. the signatory organisations also recalled that freedom of movement is a fundamental right that must be respected, denounced the violence inflicted on people on the move and called on the Tunisian authorities to respect migrants’ human rights, including social and economic rights.

On the weekend of 15-16 March, crew members aboard the Geo Barents rescue vessel witnessed two violent incidents in which the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard “deliberately endangered the lives of hundreds of people seeking safety”. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) published footage showing that, on 15 March, their crew witnessed an illegal pushback by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard in international waters in the Maltese search and rescue region, with the complicity of the Maltese authorities and in the of presence of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). Separately, on 16 March, a Libyan patrol vessel, that had been donated by Italy in 2023, threatened the MSF team and survivors during a rescue operation, claiming they would take everyone to Libya. In a statement, MSF wrote that these events are “another clear demonstration of the lack of search and rescue (SAR) capacity in the Central Mediterranean and ultimately the complete disregard for human lives by the EU and its member states”. “How long will the EU leaders continue to actively fuel horrific human right abuses at its borders?” said Juan Matias Gil, MSF SAR representative, adding: “Not only must the EU and its member states immediately stop all support to the Libyan Coast Guard, but it must also investigate the responsibility of their coastal states, in this case Malta, and its border agency, Frontex, in the unlawful pushbacks occurring almost daily in the Central Mediterranean Sea, thereby making them complicit in grave human rights violations”. Elsewhere, the International Organization for Migration reported that from 10 to 16 March 2024, 817 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya. This has brought the total number of migrants intercepted by the Libyan authorities so far in 2024 to 2738. On 18 March, a hearing was held in the European Parliament on the co-operation between Frontex and Libyan militia. Commenting on the hearing, Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office reiterated its call on the Agency “to act to save lives and comply fully with human rights”, underlining that reforms and accountability are needed. The organisation explained on X how Frontex’s aerial surveillance was still enabling pullbacks to torture and abuse in Libya, that its inaction in search and rescue had led to countless lives being needlessly lost at sea and that this showed that “human rights are not embedded in the Agency’s operations”. Matteo de Bellis from Amnesty also commented on the hearing raising two “unaddressed and often not asked questions”. “Is the EC happy with tens of thousands of people being disembarked in Libya and exposed to torture through means it has provided? If not, what is it doing to ensure fewer people are disembarked in Libya?”, he wrote on X.

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