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Why offshore processing of refugees bound for Europe is such a bad idea

Journey stops here: African migrants rescued by the Libyan coastguard. EPA

On the same day that a top UN official bravely called on Australia to end the harmful practice of processing asylum applications offshore in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, one of his colleagues announced his support for another proposed offshoring system – this time to prevent migrants reaching the EU.

On July 24, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), said that Australia’s policy to deny access to asylum in Australia for refugees arriving by sea “has caused extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long”. Multiple reports have documented the abuses suffered in these offshore centres. Four years after the opening of these processing centres, at annual running costs of more than $1 billion per year since 2012 (£608m), Australia is now refusing to resettle vulnerable refugees who remain stranded in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

But the UNHCR’s approach to this kind of asylum policy is not joined up. On the same day as Grandi spoke, the agency’s special envoy for the central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, announced the UN’s support for a proposal to set up screening systems for migrants attempting to reach the EU via Libya. Under this proposal, discussed by European and African ministers at a meeting in Tunis, transit countries such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Chad and Sudan would be used to host offshore processing centres. The aim, according to Cochetel, is to “stop the dangerous journeys into Libya”. As part of this plan, 40,000 refugees identified as qualifying for international protection would be resettled to EU member states.

Given the European Commission’s failure to persuade EU member states to resettle refugees under a similar scheme that began in 2015, it is difficult to imagine how the current proposal could work in practice. Many EU members, including the UK, have long opposed the idea of redistributing refugees through quotas.

Deteriorating situation for those already in EU

There is a high risk that, under this new plan, refugees will remain stranded in transit countries, still unable to reach the EU. This is already happening in Greece, where recent reports have highlighted the desperate conditions experienced by refugees, including young children, who are being driven to suicide and self-harm while waiting to be relocated or returned to Turkey.

This situation has been further exacerbated by a decision by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) on July 26, which affects some of those who crossed EU borders en mass in the western Balkans in 2015-16. The CJEU confirmed that, even in exceptional circumstances, the Dublin III Regulation continues to apply – meaning the first country in which a refugee enters the EU is responsible for examining their application for international protection. After this ruling, Austria and Slovenia are now authorised to send people back to Croatia where they first arrived, so that their application for international protection could be considered there.

Life in limbo at Pireus, near Athens. Zoltan Balogh/EPA

This CJEU decision contradicts an earlier opinion in June on the same case by the EU attorney general, which found that in exceptional circumstances member states should be allowed to authorise the crossing of their borders on humanitarian grounds.

As a result of the CJEU’s decision not to allow the Dublin rules to be relaxed even in exceptional circumstances, people will now be de facto trapped in squalid conditions in Greece and Italy where many of them first arrived. With the EU moving to the second stage of infringement procedures against Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic for refusing to accept refugees from Italy and Greece under the emergency relocation scheme of September 2015, both relocation and resettlement remain politically unpalatable for too many member states.

More humane alternatives

So why is the UNHCR so supportive of the EU offshoring proposal – particularly as it risks exacerbating the vulnerability of many fleeing conflict, violence or persecution who are in clear need of protection. The current plan relies on the goodwill and collaboration of countries in Africa which are far from stable, either because of poverty, ongoing jihadist insurgencies, human rights abuses, or other types of conflict or terrorist activities.

There are concerns here about the way the EU intends to persuade African partners to collaborate. Particularly as “development” aid is increasingly being made conditional on effective cooperation on migration: this so-called “more-for-more” approach has been championed by Italy and the European Commission.

The EU’s new plan does not take into consideration the international legal obligation to prevent harm to vulnerable refugees. And if Nauru and Papua New Guinea are teaching us anything, it is that throwing money at these transit countries cannot buy safety for refugees. It only serves the purpose of subcontracting a country’s legally binding international obligations to countries that are unable or unwilling to offer such protection.

The current plan has been presented as an alternative to letting people die at sea, but experts have long denounced how EU policies to pay other countries to beef up their own border security actually contribute to fuelling the business of trafficking and smuggling. Rather than appeasing political apprehensions with plans that will put more refugees at risk of death or abuse by criminal gangs, the EU and UNHCR now need to reconsider real long-term solutions that are in full compliance with international law.

Proposals to enhance the Common European Asylum System, which aims to ensure harmonisation of asylum measures across EU member states, were already put forward in 2015, together with alternative measures to facilitate access to asylum in the EU. These proposals in part reflect the temporary protection measures that many EU member states introduced in the 1990s for refugees from the former Yugoslavia, including from Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo.

The EU needs arrangements to help relocate refugees rapidly – and the UNHCR should be helping. But transferring billions of dollars to unaccountable transit countries is not a viable option. Crucially, any new measures must prevent the “extensive and avoidable suffering” currently caused by Australia’s asylum policies.

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