European and African heads of state gathered Thursday in the Maltese capital Valletta for a two-day summit on how to ease Europe's migration crisis. Dignitaries from 63 countries rubbed shoulders in Malta's fortified capital, which for two days crawled with journalists, law enforcement officers, soldiers and officials.
As talks were underway in the middle of the Mediterranean, officials around Europe continued to step up border controls in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants."The recent developments in Germany, Sweden, Slovenia and in other countries all show with utmost clarity the huge pressure member states are facing," European Council President Donald Tusk said Thursday.
Speaking at a news conference after the summit, Tusk warned that, "Saving Schengen is a race against time and we are determined to win that race." The Schengen area is a "borderless" zone made up of 26 EU states that have mutually decided to eliminate passport and immigration controls along their joint borders. Signatory countries can, however, reinstate border controls in the case of "a serious threat to public order or homeland security."
But "saving Schengen" may will mean imposing harsher controls along Europe's external borders — essentially picking and choosing who gets to dream of reaching Europe. EU leaders gathered in Valletta have been looking to their African counterparts for help in addressing the root causes of the issue — ie. why so many people are fleeing these countries in the first place.
In order to make this happen, the EU has agreed to establish a 3.6 billion euro Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The fund will benefit 34 African nations that are willing to cooperate with the EU to "guarantee peace and stability" on their territory and manage their borders.
Half of the money will come from the European Commission, with 1 billion euros being provided by the European Development Fund and a further 800 million euros to be redirected from the EU-Africa cooperation program. The EU's executive arm is now looking to member states to chip in the other half.
Bus so far, member states are nowhere close to matching the EC's contribution, and have together only pledged 100 million Euros.
According to Reuters, the money will finance "projects ranging from training and small-business grants and combating food shortages to schemes directly aimed at cutting emigration and tackling radicalization and other violence."
Some have expressed skepticism over the decision to divert Europe's development cooperation funds to tackle the migrant crisis, arguing that the purpose of these funds was precisely to address the causes of poverty and conflict in those countries, which drive mass migration in the first place.
"This money is being used as if it were meant for humanitarian aid, but it comes from somewhere else. We don't even know what accounting will be required," said Sara Tesorieri, Oxfam International's EU migration policy advisor. Like others, Tesorieri fears redirecting the funds will spell the end of EU-African development cooperation.
It is also unclear how the funds are meant to extend to so many African nations. Spread out over five years and among 34 countries, the trust fund will give each country a million-euro annual budget to solve the issues that drive immigration. Too little to solve each and every country's issues, but just enough to fund the accelerated repatriation measures Europe wants to see implemented.
At the start of October, the EU announced its plan to repatriate 20,000 illegal migrants. Last year, Europe's border control agency Frontex organized 3,000 deportations.
Meanwhile, Turkey is set to receive 3 billion euros over two years from the EU to halt the tide of migrants and refugees into Europe. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the money was to help Turkey cope with the burden of Syrian refugees.
But like Africa, Turkey will have to wait a bit longer for the financial aid to come through. So far, the EC has earmarked 500 million euros for the Turkey fund, and has asked member states to cough up the remaining 2.5 billion euros.
The EU has stated that it hopes its new investment will pay off as early as late 2016.
The choice to host the summit in Malta is doubly symbolic. Malta, once a top destination for African migrants trying to reach Europe, has today practically no immigration to speak of. Around the year 2000, the Mediterranean archipelago had a recorded 2,000 annual migrant arrivals — a number that was down to 108 by 2015, according to the United Nations.
Local charities and media say this sharp decline is due to an agreement between Malta and Italy, which takes in the bulk of migrants.
"It is my understanding that the only landings [reported] in Malta were people who arrived within two miles of the coast of the country," said Matteo de Bellis, and Italian researcher at Amnesty International in London, who has written several reports on the rescue of migrants in European waters.
The figures may actually be different. "This is obviously not normal," said Katrine Camilleri, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta. "There isn't the slightest bit of transparency from either country on this point," she said. Yet, with only a handful of (official) arrivals each year, Malta is a glowing example of where the EU wants to be in 2016.
But while the summit's opening ceremony may have been held at the Auberge de Castille, built in the 1500s by an order of knights renowned for their charitable activities, the city also boasts a less welcoming landmark. Further to the east sits the fort of Saint Elmo, erected in the 1500s to protect Malta from sea invaders.
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Photo of migrants arriving in Lampedusa, Sicily, via Flickr