The EU has promised immediate support to Italy as the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa grapples with a surge in migrant arrivals, but has failed to clarify new measures included in its so-called “plan in 10 points for Lampedusa.”
EU commitments include supporting Italy to transfer migrants to other EU member states, returning migrants to their countries of origin and considering new “naval missions” in Mediterranean.
He also promises to implement the controversial agreement on migration struck between the EU and Tunisia in July. A total of 105 million euros in EU aid has been allocated to stem migration from the North African country, which has become a popular departure point to Europe, but payments have not not yet been carried out.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen joined Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni this weekend in Lampedusa, where she visited reception centers overwhelmed by the influx of migrants making the dangerous journey from North Africa, mainly from Tunisia.
More than 7,000 migrants are said to have arrived in Lampedusa in 24 hours this weekend, more than the island’s population.
But asked on Monday about the substance of the plan, European Commission spokespeople were unable to confirm how some of the proposals would work in practice.
Accelerate transfers and returns
The EU has pledged to ease the burden on Italy by transferring migrants from Lampedusa to other member states, as well as stepping up contacts with migrants’ countries of origin to negotiate returns.
But before his visit to Rome on Monday, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said France was not preparing to accept migrants from Lampedusa, despite von der Leyen calling on EU countries to do so under the EU’s so-called voluntary solidarity mechanism.
“We must protect the external borders of the European Union and, above all, immediately examine asylum applications,” Darmanin said.
Last week, Germany resumed welcoming refugees from Italy after temporarily suspending the voluntary agreement in response to heavy migration pressures.
Around 126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of this year, almost twice as many as during the same period in 2022. But since June last year, only 1,159 people have been relocated from Italy to other EU countries.
Vice-President European Commissioner Margaritis Schinas will be tasked with traveling to sub-Saharan African countries where most of the migrants come from, including Guinea, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Burkina Faso, to negotiate the return of migrants ineligible for asylum to Europe.
The Commission was unable to confirm the exact dates of the visits, but said Schinas would undertake his task as a priority in the coming days and weeks.
The EU says it will also speed up the processing of asylum applications and returns to countries of origin considered “safe”. But aid organizations say this will put asylum seekers at a disadvantage.
“An accelerated asylum procedure worries us because we believe it could lead to risks of deterioration of the Geneva Convention,” Sara Prestianni of EuroMedRights told Euronews. “We are concerned that there is not enough time for these situations, which should allow asylum seekers to have time to explain, so that their story can be heard.
Extension of “naval missions”
Another EU proposal that still seems ill-defined is that which aims to “explore options for expanding naval missions in the Mediterranean”, which echoes the calls made last week by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for an EU naval mission to stop boats crossing the border into Italy from North Africa.
But the EU executive was unable to confirm on Monday whether such missions would be able to stop migrant boats crossing EU territory.
“We will intensify surveillance of sea and air borders – including via Frontex – and explore options for naval missions in this area,” said a European Commission spokesperson.
A naval blockade preventing boats from crossing – as Meloni proposes – would constitute a violation of international maritime law as EU ships would not be able to operate within 12 nautical miles of the coasts of third countries, nor prevent ships to dock in EU ports.
The EU executive also says it will work with Frontex, the European border protection agency, to strengthen surveillance in the Mediterranean and crack down on smuggling operations on the route linking Tunisia to Lampedusa.
However, given that the Tunisian government has never agreed to allow Frontex officials to operate on its territory, it is unclear how such an agreement could achieve results.
Last week, the Tunisian government blocked the entrance of a European Parliament mission to its territory, after European lawmakers scathingly criticized President Saied for his allegations of human rights violations against migrants.
The move is a worrying sign of deteriorating working relations between Tunisian and European authorities and could seriously undermine efforts to jointly crack down on human trafficking networks operating on the Tunisian coast.
The European Commission did not confirm on Monday whether negotiations on migration were underway with other North African countries. The executive has previously said it would use the Tunisian deal as a model for agreements with other countries such as Egypt and Morocco.
The Italian government, for its part, accepted new emergency measures on Monday, in particular by extending the duration of detention of migrants who do not meet asylum conditions from six to 18 months.
Meloni reportedly told the Council of Ministers that von der Leyen’s visit to Lampedusa was symbolically important and assured that his government would closely monitor EU commitments, including the release of financial resources promised to Tunisia.