Protection on the Move: Call for a Policy Workshop on Protection Challenges on the Central & Western Mediterranean Route

 The challenges for protection for people on the move along the Central and Western Mediterranean routes remain great in both scope and complexity. Extensive political and media attention has been focused on the cross-Mediterranean dimension of these mixed movements,[1] resulting in a lack of dedicated fora and attention for the task of developing strategies to provide protection for persons of concern who do not cross to Europe. This is the case for refugees and migrants in North Africa whose numbers are growing and where there is a growing need to support the management of mixed movements in a sustainable manner. Addressing the drivers of conflict and instability in countries of origin and weak capacities to deliver effective protection in host countries also needs renewed focus.

In this context, UNHCR and MMC are convening a workshop of policy influencers and decision-makers, academics and researchers, practitioners, and civil society advocates to discuss the challenges for protection for persons of concern[2] along the route, across countries of origin, transit and destination. This policy workshop will highlight gaps as well as emerging and promising practices and identify possibilities for improving protection space and fostering solutions in and from the different regions concerned. The workshop will also involve participation by refugees and other persons of concern to provide a vital practical perspective on the themes and proposals discussed.

The three-day workshop will provide a forum for discussion of the critical policy issues that have emerged in mixed movements along these routes across the concerned regions. It will aim to bring an interdisciplinary focus to the analysis of these challenges and responses to them from legal, policy and operational perspectives, and with due attention to gender, age and diversity dimensions.

Understanding the complex policy context

The Central and Western Mediterranean region comprises several principal routes along which mixed movements of refugees and migrants take place. These include routes from West Africa through Niger and southern Libya towards Italy and Malta; from Eritrea and Ethiopia through Sudan and Chad to Libya towards Italy and Malta; from West Africa through Mauritania, the Western Sahara and Morocco to Spain (including by land to Ceuta and Melilla); and through Mauritania and the Western Sahara to the Canary Islands (Spain). Each of these routes crosses multiple regions where networks of smugglers and traffickers of human beings are active and agile in implementing a criminal business model which inflicts gross human rights violations on people in mixed movements.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, conflict and insecurity continue to displace people from their homes, both internally and across borders. In some cases, the drivers of movement are intensifying: violent attacks in Sahel hotspots rose by 37% between mid-March and mid-April 2020, and the number of IDPs in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger increased by 33% in March alone. These circumstances where people are forced to cross borders continue to produce large populations of refugees and other people who may need international protection. In other cases, a lack of livelihood opportunities compounded by the effects of COVID-19 is likely to spur irregular movements towards North Africa and across the Mediterranean, as a household strategy to spread risk.[3]

Countries of asylum and transit in Sub-Saharan Africa continue to show great hospitality towards refugees and people on the move, but many also have large internally displaced populations and other internal security and socio-economic development challenges. While the African Union (AU) and regional bodies are making valuable efforts to promote free movement for Africans and build or strengthen asylum systems, as well as foster comprehensive community-based protection,[4] progress is slow. In parallel, efforts by States with UNHCR, the World Bank, the EU and other development actors to foster the socio-economic inclusion of refugees and migrants in their host societies and communities are still new and limited. This context and its compounding factors produce ongoing displacement from countries of origin, pose risks to refugees and migrants, and help drive onward movements towards North Africa and sometimes onward to Europe, including among refugees who are unable to access protection in or near their regions of origin.

In North Africa, asylum and migration management is increasingly challenged as refugee and migrant populations grow, with continuing mixed flows from the south. After large numbers of irregular sea crossings to southern Europe from 2016 to 2018, European governments – notably Italy, Malta and Spain, as well as the EU institutions – engaged with North African states to reduce irregular arrivals and prevent loss of life. In a shift from trends observed in 2019, the majority of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean in irregular movements are nationals of the countries of departure –  approximately 53% of irregular sea arrivals in Italy and 59% of arrivals in Spain in 2020 were nationals of North African countries – with the remaining from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.[5] Expanded rescue/interception activity has therefore contributed to a growing number of refugees and migrants in North Africa, outpacing limited reception and processing capacity. UNHCR registration may provide documentation and protection for asylum-seekers, but few durable solutions are available for those in need of international protection, with resettlement available only for very small numbers of emergency cases. National governments have made efforts to improve the protection environment, for example through the Arab League’s Arab Regional Consultative Process on Migration and Refugee Affairs, but no North African country has established an asylum system or comprehensive legal framework for refugees, and refugee status determination is still undertaken by UNHCR for governments in all these countries. In some countries, the lack of national legal and social protection frameworks compounds protection risks for persons of concern already at risk of trafficking, SGBV, extortion and other abuses, contributing to irregular onward movements towards Europe.

In Europe, maritime arrivals of refugees and migrants continue to cause political contention. Disembarkation of people rescued at sea is frequently neither timely nor safe, in some cases due to disputes over search-and-rescue coordination between NGOs and European governments, and where disembarkation occurs, reception conditions are sometimes inadequate. Informed by criticism of and strain on the Common European Asylum System, the European Commission published a new Pact on Migration and Asylum in September, with the aim of securing its adoption this year. Discussions and efforts continue within the European Commission and with EUMS to better coordinate fair and timely procedures for disembarkation, for access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and protection, and for the orderly and dignified return to countries of origin of persons not in need of international protection. These protection challenges are heightened by an increase in the number of people seeking to cross to Europe in 2020, and by measures adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic in some countries to block disembarkation, access to asylum and to screening procedures, leaving refugees and migrants stranded at sea or in legal limbo.

The nature of mixed movements along the Central and Western Mediterranean routes means that, in addition to national and regional responses, cross-regional cooperation will play a crucial role in ensuring effective protection for refugees and asylum-seekers. This is a crucial period in determining the future of Africa-Europe cooperation. A ‘partnership on migration and mobility’ is one of five pillars in the European Commission’s proposals for a new EU Strategy with Africa, building on existing processes including the Joint Valletta Action Plan and the Khartoum and Rabat Processes, to be defined at the AU-EU Summit which has now been postponed to 2021. The Cotonou Agreement establishing cooperation between the EU and the ACP countries is also being reviewed in 2020. These important steps will establish in concrete terms the path of future Africa-Europe cooperation on asylum and migration, and should have a significant impact on the provision of protection and solutions to refugees and asylum seekers in North Africa, the Sub-Saharan regions and Europe.

For more information, please click here.

Deadline for submissions; 20 November 2020.