The number of migrants entering Europe has dropped dramatically this year — but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the European Union’s summit agenda.
The make-or-break, two-day summit kicked off Thursday in Brussels, where EU leaders are scrambling to reach a consensus on how to respond to the continuing waves of migrants headed to the continent.
The stakes are high: Failure to strike a deal could bring down the government of Germany, Europe’s wealthiest economy, and potentially spell the end of free movement within the EU, one of the bloc’s hallmark achievements. To make matters worse, the region’s leaders have rarely been so divided on the issue. And that's stoking fears Europe's leaders could end up with some caustic comprises, including the possible adoption of Australian-style offshore processing centers for incoming migrants.
Here’s where things stand so far:
Migration numbers are down
While tens of thousands of migrants have crossed the Mediterranean this year, transported from North African camps in rickety smugglers’ boats, the overall numbers have dropped, thanks in part to renewed scrutiny on their route through the Balkans, and to EU deals with Turkey and Libya aimed at curbing the flow.
In fact, the numbers are significantly down from their 2015 peak, settling in around the pre-crisis levels of 2013. More than 150,000 people arrived in Italy in 2015; less than 17,000 have arrived so far this year. And applications for asylum fell by 44 percent across the EU last year, compared to 2016, according to a report by the European Asylum Support Office released this month.
Instead, the renewed focus on migration seems a result of political developments in two key EU countries, Italy and Germany, fueled by rising nationalist sentiment.
“The number of arrivals by sea is way, way down,” Benjamin Ward, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, told VICE News. “It’s really a political crisis rather than a migratory crisis — a manufactured crisis in a sense.”
In Italy, where more than a third of all migrants traveling by sea arrived this year, the new populist government, made up of the hardline anti-immigration League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, recently closed ports to NGO vessels carrying migrants picked up in the Mediterranean. The move has triggered urgent standoffs within Europe over where the ships can land, the issue back to the top of the EU agenda.
Italy wants changes to existing rules that make asylum seekers the responsibility of the country where they first arrive and seek protection. Italy has argued that this means the burden falls disproportionately on Mediterranean countries where the bulk of the new arrivals land, and wants a system where other EU countries would do more to carry the load.
In Germany, a new migration deal has also become an urgent priority, due to the combative stance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The party, wary of losing support to the far-right Alternative for Germany, is taking a hardline stance ahead of state elections in October by threatening to close the country’s borders to migrants, which would force them back south to Austria and on to Italy.
Merkel is against this, and has asked her partner for time to try to strike a better solution at the summit. But if she fails to find a fix, the standoff with her coalition partner has the potential to collapse her government.
A ‘Pacific Solution’ for Europe?
The European Union’s 28 member states are deeply divided over immigration, with nationalist governments in Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland favoring a hardline stance. Amid such discord, it’s not clear what agreement, if any, the leaders can reach.
Draft summit conclusions suggest they will work to support the creation of “regional disembarkation platforms,” although it’s still unclear what such a mechanism would look like — and may not become clear for some time.
“I’m not sure there will be much clarity on what those platforms will mean,” said Ward. “Our view is it could be good or they could be bad — the devil is in the details and I’m not sure we’ll get those details by tomorrow.”
One way it could be good, Ward said, is if they create a mechanism to resolve where ships who rescue migrants from the Mediterranean can dock, preventing the fraught standoffs seen in recent weeks.
But there are also indications that talks could focus on the creation of offshore processing centers outside the European Union, potentially in North Africa or non-E.U. countries in Europe, where officials could process new arrivals and separate genuine refugees from economic migrants, who would then be returned to their country of origin without ever entering the EU.
That suggestion — favored by hardliners who want to break the business model of people smugglers and stop migrants from reaching the EU in the first place — has Human Rights Watch concerned.
“That’s something that’s very problematic in practice, because it requires detention and coercion. It could mean an end to people spontaneously seeking asylum on EU territory,” said Ward.
“It’s really a road to a very problematic future – we know from the experience of the ‘Pacific Solution’ implemented by Australia in Nauru where that goes.”
Australia has faced widespread criticism for its controversial policy under which it refuses to accept asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and pays the poor Pacific nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru to house them. There have been frequent claims of psychological trauma, inadequate medical care, and violence inside the camps, which the U.N. said last year was “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment.
“This is the worrying version of what’s being discussed,” said Ward.
Cover image: Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, speaks to the media as she arrives for a European Union (EU) leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images.