The European Commission is pushing to create guidelines for the NGO boats rescuing migrants off Europe’s shores as part of a plan to reduce the number of asylum seekers heading to the Continent.
Mediterranean countries like Greece, Cyprus and Malta, as well as Italy, argue the “flag states” of these NGOs should indeed play a role.
The plan, presented Monday by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, comes amid a public feud between France and Italy’s new right-wing government over arriving migrants and the NGO boats that often rescue them at sea.
After pleading for days to be allowed to dock in Italy, one of these migrant rescue ships went to France instead — igniting acrimony with Paris and a discussion over the role of NGOs in the process.
The Commission’s plan doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but it does aim to focus the EU’s conversations. In addition to a proposal to set guidelines for NGO boats, it also suggests coordinating more with African and Asian countries to return migrants as well as increasing the EU’s role in that process. It also urges EU countries to actually implement a nascent plan to voluntarily relocate migrants within the bloc after arrival.
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 now meet during an emergency session on Friday afternoon to discuss the proposals. While the gathering was called because of the spat between Paris and Rome, the interior ministers are expected to touch on several other issues, including a rise in migrants coming through the Western Balkans and the packed migration centers in countries like Belgium and Austria.
Migration is one of the thorniest dossiers 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 any different, given the Commission’s “action plan” has been developed on short notice and mostly includes ideas already long under consideration.
The document, said one diplomat, is “a rehash of things that should already be happening.”
The missive mentions that in the Central Mediterranean region, over 90,000 migrants and refugees have arrived so far in 2022 — an increase of over 50 percent compared to 2021. These people, the document says, are mostly departing from Libya and Tunisia and originating primarily from Egypt, Tunisia and Bangladesh.
Many of these people, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told journalists Monday, don’t automatically qualify for international protection — a standard based on whether they face a “real risk of suffering serious harm” in their homeland.
Because of this, the latest plan proposes strengthening ties with non-EU countries by coordinating joint diplomatic efforts to ease the return of migrants who won’t receive international protection status. In 2021, only 20 percent of migrants were returned to their home countries after arriving in the EU.
Some diplomats believe this proposal could be a step forward, noting a similar plan to better coordinate diplomatic efforts recently helped stem a flow of migrants being pushed across the EU border from Belarus.
But on the most contentious issue, the role of NGO vessels, the plan doesn’t offer much hope. Italy and France have been bickering over the subject since earlier this month when Rome barred the Ocean Viking ship, operated by a French NGO, from docking and offloading its 230 migrants.
Ultimately, France let the ship dock at one of its own ports, but it also suspended a plan to take in 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy, further souring relations between the two countries.
At the core of the disagreement is whether countries should take responsibility for NGO ships registered under their domain — and the migrants they rescue. Mediterranean countries like Greece, Cyprus and Malta, as well as Italy, argue the “flag states” of these NGOs should indeed play a role.
The Commission’s action plan nods to this possible role in its call for “discussions in the International Maritime Organization on the need for a specific framework and guidelines for vessels having a particular focus on search and rescue activities,” while also calling for better coordination “among coastal and flag states.”
Johansson said the talks are necessary, noting the role of “private vessels operating at sea is a scenario that still lacks significant clarity,” and adding that “these current challenges were not thought of when maritime law was first agreed.”
Yet she also stressed that this is a subject for EU countries to hammer out, not the EU executive.
The action plan also calls on EU members to speed up a voluntary relocation pact that several countries agreed to last June. She stressed that so far only about 100 migrants have actually been relocated, despite various countries pledging to take in 8,000.
The document also suggests roughly €600 million in funding for Northern African countries to help them stem the flow of migrants heading to the EU.