For three years, the European Union has been paying other countries to keep asylum seekers away from a Europe replete with populist and anti-migrant parties.
It has paid Turkey billions to keep refugees from crossing to Greece. It has funded the Libyan Coast Guard to catch and return migrant boats to North Africa. It has set up centers in distant Niger to process asylum seekers, if they ever make it that far. Most don’t.
Even as that arm’s-length network comes under criticism on humanitarian grounds, it is so overwhelmed that the European Union is seeking to expand it, as the bloc aims to buttress an approach that has drastically cut the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
It is now preparing to finish a deal, this time in Rwanda, to create yet another node that it hopes will help alleviate some of the mounting strains on its outsourcing network.
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Critics say the Rwanda deal will deepen a morally perilous policy, even as it underscores how precarious the European Union’s teetering system for handling the migrant crisis has become.
Tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers remain trapped in Libya, where a patchwork of militias control detention centers and migrants are sold as slaves or into prostitution, and kept in places so packed that there is not even enough floor space to sleep on.
A bombing of a migrant detention center in July left 40 dead, and it has continued to operate in the months since, despite part of it having been reduced to rubble.
Even as the system falters, few in the West seem to be paying much attention, and critics say that is also part of the aim — to keep a problem that has roiled European politics on the other side of Mediterranean waters, out of sight and out of mind.
Screening asylum seekers in safe, remote locations — where they can qualify as refugees without undertaking perilous journeys to Europe — has long been promoted in Brussels as a way to dismantle smuggler networks while giving vulnerable people a fair chance at a new life. But the application by the European Union has highlighted its fundamental flaws: The offshore centers are too small and the pledges of refugee resettlement too few.
European populists continue to flog the narrative that migrants are invading, even though the European Union’s migration policy has starkly reduced the number of new arrivals. In 2016, 181,376 people crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to reach Italian shores. Last year, the number plummeted to 23,485.
But the bloc’s approach has been sharply criticized by humanitarian and refugee-rights groups, not only for the often deplorable conditions of the detention centers, but also because few consigned to them have any real chance of gaining asylum.
“It starts to smell as offshore processing and a backdoor way for European countries to keep people away from Europe, in a way that’s only vaguely different to how Australia manages it,” said Judith Sunderland, an expert with Human Rights Watch, referring to that country’s policy of detaining asylum seekers on distant Pacific islands.
Such criticism first surfaced in Europe in 2016, when the European Union agreed to pay Turkey roughly $6 billion to keep asylum seekers from crossing to Greece, and to take back some of those who reached Greece.
On the Africa front, in particular in the central Mediterranean, the agreements have come at a lower financial cost, but arguably at a higher moral one.
A migrant detention center in Tripoli, Libya, in 2015.
Brussels’ funding of the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats before they reach international waters has been extremely effective, but has left apprehended migrants vulnerable to abuses in a North African country with scant central governance and at the mercy of an anarchic, at-war state of militia rule.
A handful are resettled directly out of Libya, and a few thousand more are transferred by the United Nations refugee agency and its partner, the International Organization for Migration, to a processing center in Niger. Only some of those have a realistic shot at being granted asylum in Europe.
With many European Union member states refusing to accept any asylum seekers, Brussels and, increasingly, President Emmanuel Macron of France have appealed to those willing to take in a few who are deemed especially vulnerable.
As Italy has continued to reject migrant rescue vessels from docking at its ports, and threatened to impose fines of up to 1 million euros, about $1.1 million, on those who defy it, Mr. Macron has spearheaded an initiative among European Union members to help resettle migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. Eight nations have joined.
But ultimately, it’s a drop in the bucket.
An estimated half a million migrants live in Libya, and just 51,000 are registered with the United Nations refugee agency. Five thousand are held in squalid and unsafe detention centers.
“European countries face a dilemma,” said Camille Le Coz, an expert with the Migration Policy Institute in Brussels. “They do not want to welcome more migrants from Libya and worry about creating pull factors, but at the same time they can’t leave people trapped in detention centers.”
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The United Nations refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration, mostly using European Union funding, have evacuated about 4,000 people to the transit center in Niger over the past two years.
Niger, a country that has long served as a key node in the migratory route from Africa to Europe, is home to some of the world’s most effective people-smugglers.
The capacity of the center in Agadez, where smugglers also base their operations, is about 1,000. But it has at times held up to three times as many, as resettlement to Europe and North America has been slack.
Fourteen countries — 10 from the European Union, along with Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the United States — have pledged to resettle about 6,600 people either directly from Libya or from the Niger facility, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
It has taken two years to fulfill about half of those pledges, with some resettlements taking up to 12 months to process, a spokesman for the agency said.
Some countries that made pledges, such as Belgium and Finland, have taken only a few dozen people; others, like the Netherlands, fewer than 10; Luxembourg has taken none, a review of the refugee agency’s data shows.
Under the agreement with Rwanda, which is expected to be signed in the coming weeks, the east African country will take in about 500 migrants evacuated from Libya and host them until they are resettled to new homes or sent back to their countries of origin.
It will offer a way out for a lucky few, but ultimately the Rwandan center is likely to run into the same delays and problems as the one in Agadez.
“The Niger program has suffered from a lot of setbacks, hesitation, very slow processing by European and other countries, very low numbers of actual resettlements,” said Ms. Sunderland of Human Rights Watch. “There’s not much hope then that the exact same process in Rwanda would lead to dramatically different outcomes.”