José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, announced he was sending the emergency relief commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, to Tunisia Wednesday night to oversee the EU’s humanitarian aid effort to the growing refugee crisis along the Libyan border.

Your Brussels Blogger has been in Malta reporting on how southern Europe has been preparing for a possible flood of migrants fleeing Libya. Despite all the bluster, thus far the only two who have claimed asylum in Europe from Libya are the two defecting fighter pilots who flew over in their Mirage jets last week.

Why the exodus to Tunisia and not across the Mediterranean? Officials in Malta say the awful weather in the past week is the real reason why nobody has attempted the 400km journey from Libya.

As I explained in my story on Monday, it’s not fleeing Libyans that Europeans are most worried about. Their main concern relates to foreigners living in Libya, mostly from other parts of Africa, who might use the chaos to flee in Europe. Many hail from places like war-torn Somalia, which nearly automatically entitles them to some sort of protection as refugees if they reach Europe.

Until recently, about 40,000 of them used to cross the Mediterranean every year, so the Italian, Maltese and Greek fears are hardly ill-founded. Before the crisis, there were an estimated 1.5m foreigners in Libya, about 150,000 of whom were thought to be keen to reach Europe, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The 40,000-a-year flow was stemmed in 2009 after a deal between Libya and Italy. Libya agreed to energetically patrol its coast for departing boats; it also agreed to take back migrants found at sea, even if in intercepted by Italian coastguards in Italian waters. What the Libyans got in return is not clear as the deal remains a secret. Even Cecilia Malmström, the EU home affairs commissioner, said she wasn’t in on the details.

Human rights groups hated the deal for two reasons: first, Italy moved away from the European tradition of taking refugees found at sea to the nearest port (even if it was in Italy), to the policy known in the US as “wet foot dry foot”: reach Italian land and you’re safe, but anything short of that we take you back to Libya. Second, human rights groups were never keen on the Gaddafi regime’s treatments of asylum seekers.

When the Mediterranean route was shut off, some of the migrants desperate to get to Europe changed plans and got in through a breach in the Greece-Turkey border, leading to a crisis there. But many stayed in Libya, where some kind of work was available. They bided their time.

Now that the economy has collapsed, violence has flared and the coastal patrols have stopped – one imagines – the trip to Europe will look enticing. One unknown factor is whether people smugglers, who organise the boats, will be ready to meet demand. It’ll take about two days after the winds die down to know for sure.

—-

Where will they land? Not Malta, if they can help it. Under EU rules known as the Dublin Regulations, the EU country in which an asylum seeker first lands is the country that processes their claim for protection. It’s also the country which they will be tied to if their claim succeeds.

Malta is perfectly pleasant for a holiday, but it’s one tenth the size of Luxembourg and its 400,000 population rivals a mid-sized European city like Antwerp.

Last week, I spoke to a handful of pre-2009 arrivals from Libya, Somalis who have temporary refugee status in Malta. All of them said they’d hoped to reach Lampedusa, some 200km west. (Italian authorities typically transfer asylum seekers to the Italian mainland, and then turn a blind eye while they leave the country. That leaves them free to push on to the UK or Norway, where most aim for). But they ended up in Malta either because the people smugglers missed their target or their boat had to be rescued.

It is an unfortunate twist of fate: from then, whatever happens, these putative refugees will always be tied to Malta. If they try to leave, an elaborate database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints known as Eurodac will tell police across Europe that those asylum seekers “belong” to Malta. Instead of processing them, which is expensive and politically unpopular, the authorities send them back to Malta. Many asylum seekers flee repeatedly, only to have their fingerprints doom them to a return to the island. It’s a mix of George Orwell, and the TV show Lost.

Malta is in a particular bind because of its tiny population; it is also the most densely populated EU country.

The Commission has called for “solidarity” with the Maltese, encouraging EU countries to take in “its” refugees. With limited success. Since 2007, France and Germany have taken about 100 each, out of around 2,500 arrivals a year. A few more went to the UK and Slovenia. But by far the biggest “importer” of Maltese refugees is the US, which has taken 648. “So much for solidarity,” one frustrated Maltese official told me.

Even worse, countries have actively used Dublin to send asylum seekers back to Malta. Over 500 were returned in 2010, with Sweden and the Netherlands in pole position.

Some (southern) countries have called for Dublin to be suspended in certain cases, when a country is overwhelmed by applications for asylum which has de facto already happened in the case of Greece. That makes northern Europeans nervous: they don’t want to be exposed to other countries’ messes. As the richer half of the continent, the northern member states are the destination of choice for most asylum seekers. If they can’t control the EU’s borders themselves, they want to be able to kick out asylum seekers who landed in other parts of the continent.

It’s not through a lack of kindness, necessarily. Sweden takes more than its fair share of asylum seekers, for example, so you can’t begrudge the Swedes if they don’t want to take in Malta’s and Italy’s, too. But the rise of the far-right in some parts of northern Europe (the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark) makes immigrant-bashing even more appealing.

A final factor to consider is whether tampering with Dublin would cause problems for Schengen, the EU’s free-movement zone. Some in northern Europe say they can’t afford to have open borders with countries whose border system clearly has problems – the same arguments France and Germany have used to delay Romania and Bulgaria’s own Schengen admission.

Already, France has caught several dozens of the Tunisians who landed in Lampedusa last month through “random” checks on the Italian-French border. There’s mounting anecdotal evidence, acknowledged by Commission officials, of Greek flights facing increased “random” checks, too. That is most definitely against the spirit of Schengen.

The Commission wants to keep the Schengen and Dublin dossiers entirely separate. After all, border-free is one of the crowning agreements of the EU – much more tangible to citizens than the single market, say. The last thing Brussels want to see happen is for that to be endangered by rules on asylum seekers it never much liked anyway.

Get alerts on World when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article