In 2018, several European countries agreed to set up a "solidarity mechanism" with the aim of fairly redistributing migrants, rescued in the Mediterranean, among them. InfoMigrants takes a closer look at the scheme's function and limitations.
The trigger for the European allocation scheme came after the humanitarian vessel Aquarius in June 2018, spent a total of nine days sailing the Mediterranean after being refused entry in several European ports. The ship, chartered by SOS Mediterranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), carried some 630 migrants and was turned away by both Italy and Malta before finally receiving approval to enter the Spanish port of Valencia, on June 17, 2018.
A few days prior to the migrants disembarking in Valencia, France announced that it would take in some of them, on condition they "fulfilled the requirements for the right to asylum." Fifty-two of the ship's passengers were then granted refugee status in France.
At the end of June, France announced it would also take in migrants from the rescue ship Lifeline which had arrived in Malta on June 27. Spain, Malta and Portugal all followed suit, and agreed to also accept some of the migrants onboard the vessel.
The European discussions and negotiations regarding the "redistribution" of the rescued migrants was the start of the so-called "solidarity mechanism" which was ratified in Valletta on September 23, 2019, by France, Germany, Italy and Malta, and later also by Ireland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Slovenia and Romania.
The European Asylum Support Office (EASO) has since been in charge of coordinating the redistribution of the migrants who arrive in Malta and Italy. "The procedure is done on a voluntary basis. EU member states can participate at any time," the agency explained to InfoMigrants.
So how does it work?
The volunteering countries first inform the European Commission, which then informs the EASO. Each country then provides the EASO with their asylum requirements, and the agency proceeds to conduct initial interviews with migrants on the ground in Italy and Malta.
After these interviews have been conducted, the EASO makes a list of the people that fulfill the different countries' asylum criteria. France, for example, does not accept unaccompanied minors under the scheme.
The agency says it takes several factors into account when making its evaluations, including the vulnerability of the person, as well as his or her cultural connections to the host country and potential family ties. The EASO also says it respects the principle of fair redistribution among the European countries that take part in the scheme.
Some countries may ask the EASO to conduct several interviews with the migrants before they accept them.
Once a host country has been validated, the agency has four months to organize the migrant’s transfer there.
When the person arrives in the selected host country, the asylum seeking process continues, however. The French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons (OFPRA) explains that "those transferred to France largely intend to benefit from international protection in France." It is possible, however, that OFPRA – despite the interviews already conducted by the EOSA in Italy or in Malta – decide to reject an asylum application after their arrival after learning additional information about the applicant. "To date, this has not happened," OFPRA says.
The fact that the "solidarity mechanism" only applies to asylum seekers, however, can land those who do not want to apply for asylum in a tricky situation once they arrive in the host country. The ASEO says that a person who does not apply for asylum "is registered as having entered the country illegally," and can therefore be sent back to their country of origin.
Waited six months
While the scheme might look good on paper, in practice it is another matter. Migrant aid groups have deplored the difficulties they have encountered in trying to help migrants going through the process, and they have raised the alarm about suspected human rights violations, especially in Malta.
When migrants arrive in Malta, they are sent to an Initial Reception Center (IRS). "After 14 days, they are supposed to be transferred to one of the open centers on the island," explains Dominik Kalweit, one of the co-founders of the NGO Kopin which helps migrants in Malta. But many of the open centers are currently overcrowded, and some migrants have therefore been sent to detention centers. "Most of the people detained here are being detained illegally," Kalweit says.
Some of the migrants that InfoMigrants spoke to also have a hard time understanding how the scheme actually works.
Abdoul Rachid Omar*, from Benin, arrived in Sicily in September on board the Ocean Viking rescue vessel. Under the redistribution mechanism, Germany has agreed to take him in, but after more than four months in Italy, he is still waiting for his transfer. "They don’t give you money here. We are in a village [in southern Italy] and the city is very far away. If you want to go there you have to take the bus," he says.
Along with Omar, 11 other people are also waiting for their transfer to Germany. They arrived in Italy in June, onboard the humanitarian vessel Sea-Watch 3, and have now waited for six months.
There are 11 people, rescued by #SeaWatch3 in June, still waiting for Germany to take them in, as it promised almost 6 months ago. In the meantime, they have shockingly little access to their basic needs and rights. We ask @BMI_Bund... how much longer are you going to wait? https://t.co/9YDkZmQUEa— Sea-Watch International (@seawatch_intl) December 4, 2019
Omar recounts his interview with the EASO. "We did an interview in Sicily. They asked us what pushed us to leave our home countries. Two weeks after that, we were interviewed again. Some by France, others by Germany. I was in the group to go to Germany. [During my interview with the EASO] I didn’t specify which country I wanted to be sent to, I just told them that I wanted to live in peace and in security."
*The name has been changed