Offshore asylum screening centres: towards a cordon sanitaire

Europe’s annual migrant ‘boat season’ is getting underway, and already the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean are already showing a dramatic increase on previous years.   According to the European Border Agency Frontex, 42,000 people have tried to reach Italy this year,  compared with UNHCR figures of 3, 362 arrivals by the end of April last year.

In Morocco  hundreds of migrants have managed to breach the fearsome border fences erected around the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in the last few months.    Now the United Nations refugee agency UNCHR has announced that it is prepared to contemplate the establishment of large-scale asylum ‘screening centres’ in Africa to process migrants trying to reach Europe.

That the world’s most prominent refugee organization should be considering such a possibility is a disturbing development.   Similar centres have been established by Australian governments in the South Pacific, with grim consequences for many of the migrants interned in them.   In Europe, the establishment of screening centres was first presented to a meeting of  EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers by that prominent humanitarian Tony Blair back in March 2003, as part of Blair’s ‘new vision for refugees.’

This ‘new vision’ envisaged the creation of ‘transit centres’ along the migratory routes to  Europe, where migrants could be screened and processed,  and then returned to their countries of origin if they failed to meet the required criteria.  Blair’s proposals also mooted a concept of ‘regional protection’, whereby refused asylum seekers who could not be returned to their countries of origin could be kept in these centres – and outside Europe.

Then, as now, thousands of rejected asylum seekers were living in the UK who could not be returned, but were not considered ‘legal’ – many of whom remained in this state for years.  Under Blair’s proposals, such migrants would have been kept in these ‘regional protection’ centres instead, which would be established in countries such as Morocco, northern Somalia, Ukraine or Turkey.

All this, Blair insisted, would serve to ‘deter those who enter the EU illegally and make unfounded asylum applications.’  At the time these proposals were  widely condemned by refugee organizations as a means of outsourcing Europe’s migration enforcement to countries that had no interest in refugee protection, some of which were not even signatories to the Geneva Convention.

Yet now UNHCR’s European director Vincent Cochetel says that he would be prepared to accept such centres, providing ‘certain safeguards were in place: the right to appeal, fair process, the right to remain while appeals take place.’

What has caused this transformation?   According to the Guardian, it’s because frontline ‘border countries’ like Greece and Italy have been abandoned by Brussels in the face of a ‘collossal humanitarian crisis.’   There is no doubt that some countries, and some places, have been placed in an invidious position by Europe’s disastrous attempts to ‘manage’ migration, but ‘screening centres’ are not a solution to these problems, and UNCHR should not be supporting such proposals.

From the point of view of European governments, asylum has always constituted the weak link in their ongoing attempt to build physical and paper walls between Europe and the global South.  It has also presented Europe with a challenge: how to stop or at least drastically reduce the numbers of people seeking refugee protection in Europe without overtly rejecting the principle of refugee protection that has generally considered to be the cornerstone of the post-World War II  ‘rights-based’ international order, and which has been enshrined as a key principle of the European Union’s political identity.

European governments have attempted to resolve this problem essentially in two ways;  Firstly,  by preventing asylum seekers from reaching European territory, regardless of whether they are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded,’ through a constantly escalating series of barriers and an unacknowledged policy of deterrence that seeks to make migrant journeys as difficult as possible, and which tacitly accepts the enormous suffering and loss of life involved as a form of ‘collateral damage.’

Secondly, EU member states have attempted to quarantine and exclude asylum seekers who succeed in reaching Europe as far as the law allows, in the hope of rendering them more easily deportable.   These priorities are not concerned whether asylum seekers are ‘genuine’ or ‘unfounded’, but on reducing the numbers of asylum claims per se.

The case of Syria is a clear example of this.   This year, according to UNHCR, Syrians became the largest single nationality seeking asylum in industrialized countries.  Last year in the UK, Refugee Council statistics found that the number of Syrians seeking asylum rose by 69 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Just to recall, this is Syria: the country with the largest refugee crisis in the world – a crisis that was, until recently being used by a number of governments as a casus belli. According to what most European governments have said, all Syrian refugees should be considered genuine and therefore deserving of refugee protection.

But Syrians, it seems, are worthy of our bombs,  but not of a helping hand when they make it to our borders.   That is why the French police destroyed migrant camps in Calais last month, scattering a migrant population that consists increasingly of Syrians.  That is why no European government has shown any interest in proposals made by refugee organizations to establish safe routes across the Mediterranean or the Sahara. To do that would be to abandon the principle of deterrence, and neither the EU nor its members are prepared to do that.

Europe is already involved in a long-term attempt to enlist outlying neighbouring states as de facto European border guards, and the prospect of transfering the entire asylum screening process to countries outside the European Union is part of the same process.

Given these priorities UNHCR’s advocacy of ‘safeguards’ is disingenuous and meaningless.   Does UNCHR seriously imagine that appeals against refusals can be successfully mounted in fenced-in screening centres in the Ukraine, Libya or Puntland?  Or that centres like this will reduce the numbers of people trying to reach Europe by other means?  Or that poor countries with few resources will be able to process asylum seekers more effectively than the rich countries they are trying to get to?

It is difficult to imagine how any of this can be assured, and UNHCR would surely do better to stay clear of proposals that have nothing to do with humanitarianism or providing refugee protection, and everything to do with stopping Europe’s unwanted people from getting anywhere near the continent.

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