As people around the globe marked World Refugee Day Tuesday the all too familiar news came that at least 120 people had drowned off the coast of Libya. Their deaths bring the total number of people who have died while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean to more than 1,800 since the start of the year.
Against this grim backdrop, European leaders are meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Brussels to discuss migration. Each leader will no doubt lament these latest deaths. But despite their hand-wringing rhetoric, the focus of their discussion will not be the importance of saving lives. Instead it will be how to reduce the number of people arriving in Europe in the first place, by reinforcing cooperation with African countries to stem irregular migration.
This strategy not only exacerbates the disparity between developed and developing countries in the number of refugees they are taking in, but it also undermines any claim by the European Union to be a standard bearer for human rights.
Rather than offering refugees and migrants the chance to avoid irregular border crossings, by creating safe and legal routes for people to move to Europe and improving conditions in refugee camps, Europe has focused on increasing border controls and stepping up returns.
No matter how much money European governments invest in international aid projects purportedly intended to address the root causes of displacement, the reality is that EU leaders have so far largely favored projects that create barriers for migration—and they have used international aid as leverage to get African governments to cooperate in their implementation.
The currently preferred method for solving the migrant crisis seems to be “externalization.” This involves recruiting countries refugees and migrants come from or travel through to tighten border controls or to shift protection responsibilities to other countries.
So-called externalization policies increase the likelihood of human rights violations. This is particularly the case if measures to tighten border control are encouraged politically (including by leveraging aid) and facilitated technically (through training and equipment) in countries with problematic human rights records.
These policies can end up encouraging or supporting refoulement, collective expulsions, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and other serious human rights violations. Investing in such measures might not even achieve the desired result of reducing irregular arrivals. In the absence of alternatives, people fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty will still try to flee the only way they can, putting their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.
A shameful example of how this works in practice is Europe’s cooperation with Libya. European leaders have deepened cooperation with the Libyan coastguard, through training and even provision of boats, in the hope of stopping sea crossings, despite warnings that this would support and even fuel human rights violations. They are now looking at supporting Libyan border control capacity in the south of the country.
This is happening even though Libya does not have a concrete plan to improve human rights protection. Refugees and migrants are detained automatically and people in need of international protection have no prospect of claiming asylum, as Libya has no legal asylum framework.
By empowering the Libyan coastguard to intercept refugees and migrants at sea and take them back to Libya, EU policy is exposing thousands to unspeakable abuses in the detention centers where they are sent upon disembarkation; centers where they are detained indefinitely and subjected to torture, beatings, rape and exploitation by guards.
Also, as we have seen in multiple sea interceptions carried out over the past months, the Libyan coastguard disregards basic safety protocols and international standards, and has even opened fire during rescue operations at sea. Refugees and migrants are put at risk while the EU looks the other way. Meanwhile, the number of irregular crossings and deaths at sea continues to rise.
This might be the most troubling example of how cooperation may lead to unintended but foreseeable consequences, but it is by no means the only one. In the pursuit of quick fixes to reduce migration, European governments are further developing measures—such as the labeling of certain countries as “safe” for returns—that increase the risk of human rights violations. So desperate are they to achieve the goal of reducing arrivals that they are prepared to trample the rights of desperate men, women and children seeking safety in Europe.
EU leaders have an opportunity to revert this course of action. At the very minimum, they should refrain from any form of cooperation that might leave refugees and migrants stranded in countries where they are exposed to human rights violations. They must monitor and address the human rights risks that may arise from current externalization policies.
But radical change is needed. As they review their external migration policies, European leaders must end their focus on the short-term objective of reducing crossings. Instead, a bold plan is needed to support human rights protection in countries of origin and transit and to make safe routes available to refugees and would-be migrants.
Such measures would provide a safer and more orderly alternative to dangerous irregular crossings and in so doing, steer refugees and migrants away from criminal networks who leech off their desperation. Only then will the tragedy of lives lost at sea become a thing of the past and the rights of vulnerable men, women and children will be truly protected.
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