Germany’s interior ministry reportedly wants people seeking international protection stopped at sea and returned to north Africa to then apply for asylum in the EU.
A spokesperson for the ministry told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday (6 November) that the plan would save lives and undermine a lucrative smuggling trade.
“The goal must be to remove the basis for people-smuggling organisations and to save migrants from the life-threatening journey,” she said.
The ministry, headed by Thomas de Maiziere, wants to offload the application process to states like Egypt or Tunisia in a move that resembles Australia’s controversial asylum policy.
The Australian government sends all applicants caught at sea to one of two offshore processing centres on Pacific island nations. Rights group say the conditions in the camps often resemble prisons.
Intercepting people in the Mediterranean Sea and making them apply for EU asylum in Tunisia or elsewhere would mark a major policy shift and likely restrict an asylum seeker’s access to basic rights like legal representation and the right to appeal.
It also departs from Merkel’s open-door refugee policy announced last year.
That announcement was precipitated by a large inflow of people and followed with internal border clamp downs, the closure of the Western Balkan route, and an EU migrant swap deal with Turkey.
The number of people arriving from Turkey to the Greek islands has since dropped, but the flows from Libya to Italy, in comparison to last year, have increased.
Around 160,000 made the attempt this year to Italy, up from 140,987 in 2015, according to the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Some 3,500 have died.
The German proposal has not been discussed at the EU level, the German spokesperson said.
Politics and local elections
The idea is a broader indication of how policy and lawmakers are vying to reverse the flow of people disembarking from north Africa amid the rise of populist parties at home.
Anti-immigrant groups like Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) made large electoral gains given the wider controversy over Merkel’s open-door refugee policy.
In September’s regional election, the AfD beat the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) party into third place.
De Maiziere and Merkel both hail from the CDU.
De Maiziere’s plan follows a string of Italian-led initiatives to also cut tailored EU deals with Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Ethiopia.
The countries are major points of origin and transit for people seeking better lives in the EU. Some 34,000 arrived to Italy from Nigeria alone.
Plans are underway to invest billions of euros in the five African countries in an effort to boost development and step up returns of anyone not entitled to international protection in the EU.
The EU has set aside some €3.4 billion in guarantees for long-term private investments. The hope is that participating member states will leverage the initial contributions to reach some €88 billion.