• The European Ombudsman has renewed her inquiry into human rights issues stemming from the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding.
  • A new report by the European Court of Auditors has criticised the lack of impact of the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey.
  • The President of Cyprus has suggested that a ‘special package’ of EU support for Lebanon, including for the ‘management of migration’, may be announced in early May.
  • Three NGOS have issued a statement on the dire state of education in Gaza, where most school buildings have either been damaged or destroyed, and Germany has announced that it will resume its funding to the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).

Although they are underpinned by promises of reform, economic stability and a mix of programmes ranging from education to energy, the EU’s recent agreements with Egypt, Tunisia and Mauritania are based on the EU’s “prerogative to stem irregular migration primarily towards Italy and Spain” whilst making “budgetary concessions to governments with their own motives”. That was the view expressed in a recent article by EUobserver. “Most countries consider that they’re already doing enough. They have no inclination to assist the EU,” said Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. “It doesn’t mean that they won’t play a game on this and try to extract benefits and concessions and other advantages from offering or pretending to offer support and hosting of people that Europe doesn’t want,” she added. Similar views were expressed by a senior European Commission (EC) official in off-the-record comments about Tunisia in June 2023. “My feeling at this point is that especially countries in the neighbourhood will not sign up to any purely migration flow arrangements,” he told journalists.

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has renewed her inquiry into human rights issues stemming from the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). An initial inquiry into the deal, under which the EU provides funding to Tunisia in exchange for its support in stopping migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, was opened in September 2023. Having received responses from the EC in February 2024, the Ombudsman announced on 12 April that she was launching a new inquiry. She drew attention to concerns about the lack of a prior human rights impact assessment, particularly in relation to the ‘migration and mobility’ pillar and its measures. Her spokesperson told the Brussels Times that the new inquiry would allow the her staff to inspect documents and meet relevant EC officials in order to investigate the issues raised in the questions that she had submitted in her letter to EC President Ursula Von der Leyen.

The migration deal that EU signed with Türkiye in 2016 is also back in the spotlight. A new report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) has highlighted the difficulty of managing the €6 billion of EU funding in the context of Türkiye’s economic downturn and the Turkish government’s “backsliding on the rule of law and fundamental rights”. “This leads to the EU focusing less on issues that should be of relevance such as the neglect of human rights,” said Florian Trauner, a professor at the Brussels School of Governance. The ECA report has also revealed concerns about the part of the funding under the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey which was allocated to the country’s education ministry to fund projects aimed at integrating Syrian children into the Turkish education system. Despite the ECA’s repeated requests for information, the ministry did not provide the requested data. “We are not able to say anything about the impact of the funding provided,” said Bettina Jakobsen, the report’s author. “Does it help the refugee children in schools? Are they actually receiving the necessary education in schools?” she asked. The EC, on the other hand, seemed to be less concerned about the apparent lack of transparency. “The commission considers that the absence of some data is not a major impediment to its close cooperation with the Turkish Ministry of National Education,” it said in response to ECA queries.

The EU is considering additional ways to support Lebanon, including in the “management of migration”, and a new economic aid package may be imminent. Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, who is due to travel to Lebanon alongside EC President Ursula Von der Leyen in early May, told the European Council that a new EU economic package would be announced during the visit. “A specific package of economic support for the country will be announced for the management of migration, but also for the country itself, which is facing multiple challenges, which I believe will be another step in this holistic approach of ours, to deal with migration”, he said. Cyprus recently declared a “state of crisis” and ceased processing asylum applications for people from Syria following an increase in their arrivals from Lebanon. Cypriot authorities have reportedly deployed police patrol boats just outside Lebanese territorial waters in order to stop boats carrying Syrian refugees from reaching the island. Emilia Strovolidou from the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) office in Cyprus told the Associated Press that, according to testimony from relatives of passengers, Cypriot authorities “forcibly pushed back” the boats using “violence” and “techniques to destabilise [them]”.

In its latest situation update, the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNWRA) has reported that up to 1.7 million people (more than 75 per cent of the population) had been displaced across the Gaza Strip, most of them multiple times. On 17 April, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini told the UN Security Council that: “UNRWA’s operational space is shrinking, with arbitrary measures imposed by Israel to restrict the presence and movement of staff. It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep our schools and health centres open and accessible. (…) Failing to deliver on education will condemn an entire generation to despair – fueling anger, resentment, and endless cycles of violence.” The heads of three NGOs, including ECRE member organisation the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), issued a joint statement in which they warned that education was “under attack” in Gaza with almost 90% of school buildings damaged or destroyed. The heads of Education Cannot Wait, the NRC and Save the Children International urged the Israeli government to “immediately end unlawful attacks on education and endorse and fully implement the Safe Schools Declaration”. Elsewhere, UN Secretary-General (SG) António Guterres said that Israel’s commitments to improve aid access to Gaza had had “limited and sometimes no impact” and he called for urgent action to “avert imminent famine, and further preventable deaths from disease”. “Apparent progress in one area is often cancelled out by delays and restrictions elsewhere,” said Guterres. “For example, although the Israeli authorities have cleared more aid convoys, those clearances are often granted when it is too late in the day to make deliveries and return safely (…) so, the impact is limited, and sometimes nil”, he added. Meanwhile, a review led by former French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, found no proof of UNRWA staff involvement in terrorism. “Israel made public claims that a significant number of UNRWA employees are members of terrorist organisations. However, Israel has yet to provide supporting evidence of this,” the report stated. Germany, which is UNRWA’s second largest donor, urged UNRWA to implement the report’s recommendations swiftly and pledged to resume its funding to the agency. “In support of these reforms, the German government will soon continue its cooperation with UNRWA in Gaza, as Australia, Canada, Sweden and Japan, among others, have already done,” it wrote in a statement. Commenting on the report, the UNSG’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, said that “UNRWA, with the Secretary-General’s support, will establish an action plan to implement the recommendations”. “Moving forward, the Secretary-General appeals to all stakeholders to actively support UNRWA, as it is a lifeline for Palestine refugees in the region,” he added.

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