Europe was recently shaken again by the drowning of dozens of refugees off the coast of the Italian region of Calabria. Once again it turned out that asylum seekers are willing to take huge risks to reach Europe. Politicians reacted with dismay and blamed people smugglers for this tragedy. But how do you prevent asylum seekers from making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean without denying them the right to apply for asylum?
A majority in the House of Representatives recently adopted a motion calling on the government to investigate whether asylum seekers who are already in the Netherlands can be sent to a safe third country outside Europe to complete the asylum procedure there. For example to Rwanda.
Few people know that there has been an agreement with Rwanda for a long time about the (temporary) reception of asylum seekers. This only concerns asylum seekers who are not yet in Europe, but who were in Libya. However, European countries, including the Netherlands, are making little use of the opportunity to complete the asylum procedure in Rwanda (and Niger) and to resettle asylum seekers who have been granted a status from there.
In 2018, the then Minister for Development Cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, visited a detention center in Libya. She was shocked by the conditions in which refugees were held by militias and called on the Libyan government to close all detention centres. Although a large number of centers have been closed since then, according to the UN refugee organization UNHCR, 3,500 refugees are still being held there. What goes on there is largely hidden from the eye of international aid organizations, but horror stories from refugees about torture, rape and extortion are numerous.
Read also: Why refugees keep getting into boats
Despite the fact that the Libyan government has little power and militias rule the roost, including where people smuggling is concerned, the Italian government has made agreements with the Libyan coastguard to prevent the departure of refugee boats from Libya to Italy as much as possible. The EU is funding the project’Support to Integrated Border and Migration Management in Libyaand supplies patrol boats to the Libyan Coast Guard.
Last year, 23,000 refugees and migrants were intercepted/rescued by the Libyan coastguard. These people are dropped off at disembarkation points in Libya, where UNHCR and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) arrange initial reception and provide medical care. Some are transferred to detention centers, but many refugees and migrants are missing. Nevertheless, UNHCR and IOM, with the support of the Dutch government and the EU, succeeded in bringing thousands of migrants and refugees from Libya to safety last year as well.
The biggest problem is the bureaucratic procedures in European countries
In Rwanda and Niger, so-called Emergency Transfer Mechanisms set up. These are reception centers where refugees are temporarily housed and where their asylum procedure can be completed. UNHCR has registered 42,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Libya and a small part of them nominated for asylum in an EU country. Last year, 1,375 asylum seekers were transferred to Niger, Rwanda and Italy.
There is little to criticize about the conditions in the reception locations in Niger and Rwanda. The biggest problem is the bureaucratic procedures in European countries, as a result of which refugees sometimes stay for years in a reception center while waiting for their new homeland. While it really only concerns formalities, because the asylum seekers have been screened and nominated by UNHCR.
Taking in more refugees
There is much to be said for making more use of the possibilities offered by the Rwandan (and Nigerien) government for the temporary reception and resettlement of asylum seekers. Many asylum seekers could be released from their precarious situation in Libya, and might not consider making the perilous crossing to Italy, if European countries were prepared to take in more refugees in this way. If the surveillance of European borders is partly outsourced to the Libyan coastguard, then Europe has a responsibility to make the best possible use of the possibility that there is to process asylum applications in Rwanda. Cooperation with Rwanda and Niger should therefore be expanded in this area.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of March 15, 2023