Amid heightened debate over migration in Europe, the right-wing interior ministers of Austria and Italy on Friday put forward a controversial proposal to change the way that asylum claims are processed.
Can asylum seekers really be screened at sea?
What are they proposing?
Austria’s Herbert Kickl called on the EU to hold migrants rescued at sea on ships while an initial screening of their chances of obtaining asylum is carried out.
“For those who manage to make it into a European state’s territorial waters and are then picked up by a ship, we should use the ships to carry out the appropriate checks on whether they deserve protection,” he said.
He added that after a screening that “should last a few days” those with no chance of asylum should be denied access to Europe.
His Italian counterpart, Matteo Salvini, said he backed the idea, which offers an alternative to a previous proposal for “regional disembarkation platforms”.
How does the system currently work?
After migrants are rescued at sea they are sent to the nearest safe harbour for their asylum application to be processed.
“In practice, when people are rescued at sea, they have to be taken to a European port. Then the application has to be processed by a European authority,” Yves Pascouau, a migration expert and editor of EuropeanMigrationLaw.eu, told Euronews.
Screening generally takes place in the first country the migrants arrive in, but other European countries can volunteer to process the asylum claims.
Countries like Italy and Greece, which lie on the Mediterranean routes into the EU, argue that they are forced to deal with a disproportionate amount of asylum claims.
What could the problems be with the Austrian proposal?
Critics of the proposal argue that vessels are not equipped to process asylum claims, and that the idea would be too difficult to enforce while meeting human rights obligations.
Aloys Vimard, project coordinator for the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said on board asylum processing has proved problematic when attempted in past refugee crises.
Issues have included “ensuring adequate access to translators, safeguarding the privacy of the interviews carried out under difficult conditions on board a ship, ensuring access to appropriate counsel, and providing appropriate appeal mechanisms,” he said in a statement shared with Euronews.
Vimard added that the proposed system would “unnecessarily extend survivors’ time spent at sea”, which he said was contrary to International Maritime Law.
Legal expert Pascouau noted that while the idea “could be legally feasible” it would be “extremely complex to put into practice” and he would be “extremely surprised” if the EU agreed to it.
“There is the question of which boats will be charged with the duty to assess the claims. This is not going to be any EU boat. This is going to be a national boat,” he said.
Pascouau argued that if there were migrants on board deemed not to have legitimate asylum claims it could lead to one of three scenarios.
“First the boat stays at sea for weeks waiting for their country to take them back. Second, there is no possibility of turning them back, so we have to bring them to Europe. Third, we turn them back to any country willing to accept them and violate human rights regulations,” he explained.
How have people reacted?
A post about the plan on Kickl’s Facebook page was liked almost 1,000 times, with the majority of comments speaking favourably about the idea.
However, it has also drawn strong criticism.
“This proposal is yet another attempt to divert attention from the actual issue, namely the inability of Europe and the Austrian EU Presidency to find a sustainable solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Central Mediterranean and Libya,” MSF said in its statement.