The European Commission (EC) unveiled its European Agenda on Migration today, outlining a series of emergency and long-term measures to deal with the unprecedented number of people crossing the Mediterranean, but several countries are pushing back against plans to resettle migrants, saying it will lead to more shipwrecks by encouraging others to attempt the perilous voyage.
The EC pledged in the new agenda to triple the budget of the maritime border monitoring operations Triton and Poseidon; to launch a counter-trafficking intervention in Libyan territorial waters; and to implement quotas for a fairer distribution of migrants among European Union (EU) member states.
The UK, Hungary, and Poland are among the countries that oppose the quota system. In an article published Wednesday in The Times, UK Home Secretary Theresa May disagreed with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini's suggestion that, "No migrants intercepted at sea should be sent back against their will." May said people rescued at sea should be sent home if they don't have a legitimate asylum claim.
"The UK will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation," May said. "We must not provide new incentives for those simply seeking to come for economic reasons."
EC Vice President Frans Timmermans responded to the criticism at a press conference on Wednesday, saying it's not possible prevent mass drownings without addressing the question of resettlement. "We can't accept a situation where whole families are just drowning in the Mediterranean," he said. "We have to try and save those people."
The budget for the European border control agency Frontex's Triton and Poseidon operations will be raised by the EC to 9 million euros ($10 million) per month. That's the same amount Italy used to spend on its Mare Nostrum migrant search and rescue operation, which ended in fall 2014 due to financial constraints and concerns the mission created an unintended "pull factor" for migrants. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday that the risk of Mediterranean migrant tragedies "increased and intensified" after Mare Nostrum ended.
The plan to target people smugglers operating off the coast of Libya is on hold pending a UN Security Council resolution. The Guardian obtained a "strategy paper" for the proposed operation, which included the possibility of an intervention on the ground in Libya. Mogherini, however, ruled out putting boots on the ground, saying the EU was "not planning in any possible way a military intervention in Libya."
According to the EC's new agenda, migrants that successfully cross the Mediterranean will distributed among EU member states according to "emergency relocation quotas," a system designed to relieve frontline countries such as Italy from shouldering the lion's share of non-EU migrants.
The quota system — which was requested by Italy and has been endorsed by both France and Germany — will take into account a country's GDP, population, unemployment rate, and the number of asylum seekers already being processed. The plan won't apply to the UK and Ireland unless they choose to "opt in."
In partnership with the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR), the EC has pledged to fund a 50 million euro ($57 million) two-year resettlement program to safely and legally relocate 20,000 people in the EU. According to the UNHCR, 10 million people worldwide have fled violence and are currently awaiting relocation.
The EC also said the Dublin Regulation, the system that determines which EU member state is responsible for processing a migrant's asylum claim, is "not working as it should." In 2014, according to the EC, only five of the 28 member states processed 72 percent of EU-wide asylum claims. Timmermans announced that the EC would reevaluate the Dublin Regulation in 2016 with an eye toward reforming the law to achieve fairer distribution of migrants across Europe.
The other element of Europe's plan involves scaling up cooperation with so-called "transit countries" to redirect migrants before they attempt the risky Mediterranean voyage. The first step involves building an information center in Niger to offer guidance on resettlement for individuals fleeing persecution and poverty. The EC is also studying a proposal to launch the Blue Card Directive, a legal resettlement scheme to attract highly qualified migrants to Europe.
EU foreign affairs ministers are due to discuss the new measures during a summit on Monday, and the European parliament will take up the matter on Wednesday, May 20.
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