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EU seeks swift action on African migration deals with Gambia and others to ease pressure on Italy

Gambian Immigrants

Leaders at Brussels summit will call for more efforts to reduce irregular migrants and want agreements in place by spring

European Union leaders will press for faster results from deals with African countries to stop the flow of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea to Italy.

The EU has intensified work with governments in Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Mali – all countries of origin for people attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Italy.

At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, EU leaders will call for “more efforts” to reduce the number of irregular migrants and make it easier to send back people denied asylum, according to a draft communique.

The western Mediterranean has reverted to the main crossing point for migrants, since an EU-Turkey migration pact contributed to a sharp reduction in people crossing the Aegean to Greece.

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While arrivals in Greece have fallen sharply since last year, migrants travelling to Italy are virtually unchanged.

More than 115,000 people arrived in Italy by boat in the first eight months of 2016. Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Gambia and Ivory Coast were the most significant countries of origin, but migrants have travelled from as far as Pakistan and Bangladesh, some making the journey overland.

Getting control of the EU’s external border is a priority for many countries, including France and Italy.

The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who faces a tricky referendum in December, has long argued that European countries have not done enough to help Italy deal with the migration crisis. Following a post-Brexit summit in Bratislava of 27 member states that excluded the UK, Renzi denounced the result as little more than “a nice cruise along the Danube”.

Despite Italy’s frustration, EU diplomats were expecting a less confrontational debate on migration, the first item on the agenda when the summit gets under way.

EU leaders want the migration deals with the five African countries fully up and running by next spring, to alleviate pressure on Italy and its increasingly beleaguered prime minister.

The deals are broadly similar to the EU-Turkey deal that has contributed to a 98% reduction in people crossing the eastern Mediterranean. Countries are being offered a mix of carrots and sticks to tackle people smuggling and take back migrants, who have been refused asylum in Europe.

“All incentives” should be used to create “the necessary leverage for co-operation”, stated an EU policy paper published on Tuesday. The EU was “standing ready to provide greater support to those partner countries which make the greatest efforts, but being ready to draw the consequences if progress falls short”. Critics fear this is code for stopping aid.

Aid agencies have criticised the EU, arguing that foreign policy and development goals are being subsumed to reducing migration.

“Shutting down borders does not stop people looking for safety, dignity and a better life, but actually forces people to use more dangerous and exploitative routes,” said Natalia Alonso, Oxfam’s deputy director for advocacy and campaigns.

According to an Oxfam report published this week, unaccompanied children arriving in Italy are being kept for up to five weeks in “de-facto detention facilities” intended to be used for no more than 48 hours.

Speaking earlier this week, Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, who is crafting the agreements, said fewer migrants were leaving African countries. She said the EU had achieved more with its African migration deals in the past four months than it had in previous years.

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