EU sees Maghreb as ‘outer wall’ against migrants

Maghreb countries say the European Union is not doing enough to help their countries deal with a youth unemployment problem that is often at the root of the illegal migration.
Sunday 01/07/2018
Already under strain. Illegal migrants of different African nationalities arrive at a naval base  in Tripoli after they were rescued off the coast of Al-Zawiyah, last May. (AFP)
Already under strain. Illegal migrants of different African nationalities arrive at a naval base in Tripoli after they were rescued off the coast of Al-Zawiyah, last May. (AFP)

TUNIS - The European Union is pressuring Maghreb countries to host migrant screening centres to stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

EU leaders pledged at a summit in Brussels move ahead with plans to screen migrants in North Africa for asylum eligibility. The plan, modelled after the EU-Turkey deal in which Turkey took in millions of refugees in exchange for billions of dollars in foreign aid, shows Europe’s deep sense of anxiety over migration.

However, the proposal received pushback from Maghreb countries, some of which categorically rejected the idea.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at the summit, said: “We can talk about landing ships (of migrants) in other countries, for example in North Africa, but we need to talk with these countries. We can’t do this over their heads. The EU-Turkey deal was one that both sides agreed to.”

The European Union did not release details of the plan but it would reportedly include detaining prospective migrants in centres in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Egypt and Niger would host “unloading docks.”

European Council President Donald Tusk said that, since 2015, migration was down 96% “only because we decided to cooperate with third countries and to block illegal migration outside the EU.”

“That is why I am urging that at the summit we focus on the EU’s external border, including the disembarkation platforms project,” he added.

Leverage from the European Union, a key trade and security partner, could push Maghreb countries to find common ground with the Europeans but the North African nations are not going to blindly accept any plan. Algeria voiced fierce opposition to the proposal and Libya outlined conditions that should be met.

Deputy Prime Minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord Ahmed Maiteeq urged European states to reach a broader agreement on migration.

“If Europe wants to stop the flow of migrants to its shores, it needs to help Libya monitor its southern border and put pressure on the countries of departure,” said Maiteeq, who hosted Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in the Libyan capital on June 25.

It remains to be seen, however, if Libya, with no strong central authority, can enforce any deal with the European Union, especially regarding border control.

Strong objections have been also expressed by Tunisia and Morocco. Moroccan Director of Migration Khalid Zerouali said: “That is not the solution” and that Morocco would not agree to be a screening station.

Rabat has tightened control of its borders and maritime gates to Europe, making it more difficult for migrants to use Morocco as a springboard to Spain. Moroccan authorities stopped an estimated 25,000 people this year from travelling illegally to Spain.

Most migrants seeking to enter Spain converge at the northern Moroccan town of Nador, which is on the edge of the Spanish town of Melilla, on the north coast of Africa. Melilla is encircled by four fences, one topped with razor wire, to prevent migrants from crossing.

Algeria, which experienced a surge of illegal migration after the Libyan route closed, said it would not accept Europe’s proposal to take in more.

“Because Algeria does not accept to be a centre for the detention of African migrants for the interest of Europe, it is the target of attacks by foreign organisations that even dare accuse our country of being racist,” said Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia.

Ouyahia was responding to reports that Algeria was forcing migrants to “die” in the desert after expelling them from the country.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said Algeria has sent thousands of migrants over its southern border into Niger since 2017, a journey that many say is rife with exploitation.

The Associated Press reported that Algeria abandoned more than 13,000 people, including pregnant women and children, in the Sahara Desert over the past 14 months. Some of those died.

Saida Benhabyles, chairwoman of the Algerian Red Crescent, said the reports were part of a European campaign to pressure Algeria into opening “platforms” for migrants.

“Algeria has no role in the tragedy that is experienced by African countries from famine, war and other conflicts. Algeria is a sovereign country that does not give in to pressure,” she said.

Many Maghreb states have repatriation deals with EU members and the European Union has praised Morocco and Tunisia for their efforts regarding migrants.

However, despite government efforts, illegal migration routes continue to pop up.

“Migration is like water. You cannot stop it,” said Anna Fonseca, IOM chief of mission in Morocco. “You close one part and another route will open.”

Although not comparable to Libya, Tunisia is a secondary hub for African migrants on their way to Europe. In June, at least 20 foreign Africans were among an estimated 100 migrants who died when a boat capsized off the coast of the Tunisian isle of Kerkennah.

Merkel said addressing the issue of illegal migration would be critical for EU stability.

“Europe has many challenges but that of migration could determine the fate of the European Union,” Merkel said.

Maghreb countries say the European Union is not doing enough to help their countries deal with a youth unemployment problem that is often at the root of the illegal migration. Maghreb governments see negotiations with the European Union of wider prospects for legal migration as a more appropriate solution than setting up holding centres on their shores.

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