Officials of northern African countries, rights groups, and the UNHCR chief have condemned European proposals to set up offshore processing centres to screen refugees, a subject expected to take centre stage as the EU begins a two-day summit in Brussels on Thursday.
The 28-member bloc, which is deeply divided over how to stem the refugee flow, will discuss what it terms “disembarkation platforms” in countries such as Niger, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt.
Before the meeting, a document listing draft conclusions said: “The European Council supports the development of the concept of regional disembarkation platforms in close cooperation with [UN refugee agency] UNHCR and IOM (the International Organisation for Migration).
“Such platforms should provide for rapid processing to distinguish between economic migrants and those in need of international protection, and reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys.”
No countries have so far agreed to participate in the scheme.
“The proposal was put to the head of our government a few months ago during a visit to Germany, it was also asked by Italy, and the answer is clear: no!” Tahar Cherif, the Tunisian ambassador to the EU, told The Guardian.
Libyan Foreign Minister Ahmed Maiteeq said on Monday that his country “categorically refuses” to host the facilities.
In all the scenarios, people are seen as commodities. We no longer see people as having rights, but some goods that are being passed around by countries in exchange for money or in exchange for political recognition.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees, said: “Africa has enough problems to deal with, and there’s a high-risk asylum seekers could be stuck in transit countries.”
The EU, he said, “has all the capacities to manage this flow in a fair way, without putting the burden on [a] poorer region that already hosts many refugees”.
Some reports said Albania was also being considered as a possible non-EU country to process refugees.
The Albanian mission to the EU told Al Jazeera they had not been contacted by the bloc with an official request, while Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama rejected the proposal in an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper.
‘Passing the buck’
Details over how the facilities might work are scant.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, humanitarian affairs adviser at Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF), described the idea as “passing the buck”.
“In all the scenarios, people are seen as commodities,” she told Al Jazeera. “We no longer see people as having rights, but some goods that are being passed around by countries in exchange for money or in exchange for political recognition.”
Versions of the idea have been around as early as 2015, when Brussels weighed using EU offices in “countries of origin” to screen asylum seekers.
Elizabeth Collett, the director of the Migration Policy Institute, said she was not surprised to hear that the prospect of outsourcing asylum facilities was being raised again.
“It’s a way of heading off the harder line proposals that were starting to emerge,” she told Al Jazeera, citing efforts by Austria and Denmark to send asylum seekers who had already arrived in the EU to centres outside of the bloc.
France and Italy, which recently clashed over migration, are among the countries supporting offshore centres.
Speaking alongside Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters last week he backed the idea of “branches of our asylum agencies to tackle this question on the other side” of the Mediterranean.
Judith Sunderland, an associate director at Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said historical precedents for offshore processing included the US in Guantanamo Bay before it became a military detention facility and Australia in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
“People ended up in limbo for very long periods of time, in dismal conditions with poor treatment and with huge consequences for their physical and mental health,” she said.
The suggested countries, meanwhile, would likely have reservations about participating.
“You would have a lot of migrants and asylum seekers actually flocking there,” Sunderland said. “‘Let’s not get on the boat, let’s just go to Tunisia or Albania and set up a shantytown around the detention centre.’
“I can imagine that governments would be thinking of those kind of consequences and what sort of tensions that would create in the surrounding communities.”
For Hadj Sahraoui, the experience of a resettlement scheme involving Niger illustrates why Europe’s plans could be unrealistic and unattractive to potential host countries.
Late last year, Niger agreed to take in refugees who had been held in poor conditions in Libyan detention centres on a transit basis.
In March, the UNHCR announced it had temporarily suspended the operation because too few people were being resettled. Evacuations eventually resumed in May.
Of more than 1,400 refugees who landed in Niger from Libya, fewer than 200 have been resettled in Europe or North America.
“If European countries have not been able to transform words into actions with a very small group of people … some of the most vulnerable people clearly falling under the refugee category, then [what would they do] elsewhere?” Hadj Sahraoui said.
The UNHCR expects 80,000 people to arrive by sea this year, which is about half the number from 2017.
With the number of people arriving in Europe falling sharply, Sunderland said the migration debate is being politicised.
“It really is this engineered panic and it’s taking the conversation in a very dangerous direction,” Sunderland said.
There are also concerns that proposed host countries would not be able to safeguard human rights at processing centres.
In late 2017, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called conditions in Libya “an outrage to the conscience of humanity”.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Algeria had abandoned at least 13,000 people in the Sahara Desert over the past 14 months, expelling them without food or water.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s Commissioner for Migration, attempted to quell concerns at a press conference last week, when he told reporters the bloc would not create a “Guantanamo Bay for migrants”.
“This is not what we are discussing or what has been proposed,” he said. “The Geneva Convention is here, it is alive, it is guiding us.”
Collett believes the idea will gain momentum at the summit.
The political climate has given way to the concept, she said.
“Given they can’t seem to come to an agreement internally, talking about the external dimension [of migration policy] is far easier for EU member states.”