Since facing a refugee crisis in 2015, the EU is still grappling with how to reform its asylum system at a time when desperate people continue to be on the move.

According to Human Rights Watch, over 24,000 people intercepted in the Mediterranean were forced back to Libya in 2022.

A staggering 25,000 have died in the Mediterranean since 2014. Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta are pushing hard to get the EU 27 member states to reform the asylum policies with a proposal to relocate asylum seekers across the bloc. However, other countries like Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands oppose it.

A pan-European compromise is unlikely anytime soon.

NGOs understate the political complexities that indirectly cause tragedies in the Mediterranean, like the loss of over 90 migrants who recently drowned in Cutro, in southern Italy. NGOs Alarm Phone, Mediterranean Saving Humans and Sea-Watch blame Malta and Italy for the death of 30 migrants who drowned when their boat capsized off Libya recently.

The NGOs argue there would have been no victim if the Italian and Maltese authorities had decided to immediately coordinate a proper rescue operation.

In February, the European Commission handed search and rescue boats to the Libyan coast guard, promising four additional vessels to help prevent migrants and asylum seekers from fleeing to Europe. The NGOs understandably argue that the EU’s border externalisation policies and the delegation of duties to Libya are putting the lives of thousands of vulnerable migrants at risk.

Without a broad consensus among member states, the EU is resorting to short-term tactics to push back the influx of migrants from Africa. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is proposing tough visa sanctions against countries of origin if they refuse to take back migrants deported from Europe.

A mutually beneficial outcome between the EU and the countries of origin of ‘illegal’ migrants is difficult to attain. In the short term, the EU will continue to increase border protection measures and establish partnerships with third countries as the UK did with Rwanda. Migration push factors in Africa will never stop, especially as climate change hits the most vulnerable.

Economic growth opportunities are not keeping pace with population growth in Africa. By 2050, more than half of the African counties’ population will be under 25. A paradigm shift is needed if the EU is to resolve the problem of migration. 

For decades, European countries have focused more on aid rather than trade to help African nations improve their economic prospects. Aid, however, does not itself deliver and may hinder economic transformation processes.

The EU also needs to remove obstacles to trade with Africa with political agendas sometimes going well beyond trade issues.

For instance, the European Green Deal and the hefty agricultural subsidies given to European farmers set insurmountable hurdles for many African food producers.

The current political context throughout Europe, where far-right political parties insist that border control is fundamental to sovereignty, is fuelling political tensions.

More than ever before, the EU needs to develop a coalition of willing leaders who show the courage to make some progress on the issue of migrant relocation as well as giving desperate people hope in their own country.  Looking away will resolve nothing.

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