The EU has promised immediate support to Italy as the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa struggles with a surge in migrant arrivals, but has failed to clarify what new measures its so-called ’10-point plan for Lampedusa’ includes.
Among the pledges made by the EU are supporting Italy to transfer migrants to other EU member states, returning migrants to their countries of origin, and considering new “naval missions” in the Mediterranean.
It also promises to implement the controversial migration deal struck between the EU and Tunisia in July. A total of €105 million in EU aid has been allocated to stem migration from the North African country, which has become a popular departure point for Europe, but payments are yet to be made.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen joined Italian premier Giorgia Meloni in Lampedusa over the weekend, where she visited reception centres that have been overwhelmed by the influx of migrants making the dangerous journey from North Africa, primarily from Tunisia.
More than 7,000 migrants are reported to have arrived on Lampedusa in 24 hours over the weekend, more than the island’s population.
But when questioned on the substance of the plan on Monday, European Commission spokespersons were unable to confirm how some of the proposals would work in practice.
Stepping up transfers and returns
The EU has pledged to ease the burden on Italy by transferring migrants from Lampedusa to other member states, as well as stepping up outreach to the migrants’ countries of origin to negotiate returns.
But ahead of a visit to Rome on Monday, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said France was not preparing to accept migrants from Lampedusa, despite von der Leyen calling for EU countries to do so under the EU’s so-called voluntary solidarity mechanism.
“We must protect the European Union’s external borders and, above all, immediately look at asylum applications,” Darmanin said.
Last week, Germany resumed its acceptance of refugees from Italy after temporarily suspending the voluntary agreement in response to high migratory pressures.
Around 126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the beginning of this year, almost twice more than in the same period in 2022. But since June last year, only 1,159 people have been relocated from Italy to other EU countries.
European Commissioner Vice-President Margaritis Schinas will be tasked with visiting the sub-Saharan African countries where most migrants originate, including Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso, to negotiate the return of migrants not eligible for asylum in Europe.
The Commission was unable to confirm the exact dates for the visits but said Schinas would be undertaking his task as a matter of priority in the next days and weeks.
The EU says it will also speed up the processing of asylum requests and the returns to countries of origin considered ‘safe’. But humanitarian organisations believe this will put asylum seekers at a disadvantage.
“An accelerated asylum procedure worries us because we think it could lead to risks of deterioration of the Geneva Convention,” Sara Prestianni of EuroMedRights told Euronews. “We fear there will not be enough time for these situations, which should allow asylum seekers to have time for explanations, so that their story can be heard.
Expanding “naval missions”
Another EU proposal that appears ill-defined still is the one that aims to “explore options to expand naval missions in the Mediterranean”, which echoes the calls made last week by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for an EU naval mission to prevent boats from crossing to Italy from North Africa.
But the EU executive was not able to confirm on Monday whether such missions would be able to prevent migrant boats from crossing into EU territory.
“We will step up border surveillance at sea and the aerial surveillance – including through Frontex – and explore options of naval missions on this,” a spokesperson on behalf of the European Commission said.
A naval blockade preventing boats from crossing – as proposed by Meloni – would be in breach of international maritime law as EU ships would not be able to operate within 12 nautical miles of third countries’ coastlines, nor prevent ships from docking in EU ports.
The EU executive also says it will work with Frontex, the EU border protection agency, to step up surveillance in the Mediterranean and to crack down on smuggling operations on the route from Tunisia to Lampedusa.
However since the Tunisian government has never agreed to allow Frontex officials to operate in its territory, it is unclear how such an arrangement could yield results.
Last week, the Tunisian government blocked the entry of a European Parliament mission to its territory, after EU lawmakers scathingly criticised President Saied for alleged human rights violations against migrants.
The move is a worrying sign that the working relationship between the Tunisian and EU authorities has soured, and could severely undermine efforts to jointly crack down on the human trafficking networks operating on the Tunisian coast.
The European Commission failed to confirm on Monday if negotiations on migration are underway with other northern African countries. The executive has previously said it would use the Tunisia agreement as a blueprint for deals with other countries such as Egypt and Morocco.
The Italian government, meanwhile, agreed on Monday to new emergency measures, including extending the time migrants who don’t qualify for asylum can be detained from six to 18 months.
Meloni reportedly told the Council of Ministers that von der Leyen’s visit to Lampedusa was symbolically important and assured that her government would closely monitor the EU’s commitments, including unblocking the financial resources promised to Tunisia.