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European ministers consider offshoring refugee reception centers

While idea might pre-empt need for dangerous travel, experts warn plan should not undermine legal protections

Government leaders at Thursday’s European Council meeting plan to discuss setting up “reception centers” in non-European Union countries to hold some of the tens of thousands of refugees entering Europe, the Council's office told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.  

Experts told Al Jazeera such centers might be located in Turkey, Serbia and other affected non-EU countries along popular transit routes through which more than 710,000 people — most fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Eritrea — have crossed into the bloc this year. With the expected arrival of thousands more people from Turkish camps and cities where about 2.2 million refugees now live, European leaders will consider this and other measures to confront the growing crisis.

“At this stage it’s an idea that needs to be tested with the leaders,” Preben Aamann, spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday. “It’s at the level of a concept that needs exploring if that’s agreeable to the heads of state tomorrow.”

It is unclear how the centers would operate — whether asylum seekers would be legally resettled within the European Union by the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, which is already arranging resettlement for people from camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — or if EU member states would process their applications and prevent asylum seekers from entering their borders first.

The latter option, said Elizabeth Collett, director of the Brussels-based think tank Migration Policy Institute, is far more controversial because of legal and humanitarian concerns. She said it would involve applying EU law outside of EU territory and would entail a “massive political undertaking.”

The EU and Turkey held talks last week on possible ways to tackle the refugee crisis, including increased intelligence-sharing and funding for the construction of six refugee camps in Turkey. But Thursday’s meeting would be the first time European leaders discuss the issue collectively, Collett added. While similar ideas have surfaced in past decades, “the urgency of the current crisis is creating a different political climate to try and create new solutions,” she said.

The reception of refugees in non-EU centers might reduce dangerous border crossings — more than 3,000 people died while crossing the Mediterranean this year or jumping on trains in France’s port city of Calais, a main gateway to the United Kingdom — and could undercut smugglers charging exorbitant fees. But many have voiced concerns over the possible effects of offshoring asylum processing, a practice that some fear would favor guarding borders over protecting individuals.

“The creation of large-scale centers in Turkey with access to the EU through legal channels to resettlement would be advantageous in the sense that it would give people an opportunity to gain protection in the EU without having to undertake a dangerous journey,” Collett said. “The challenge would then be: Would the EU follow through with their commitment to resettlement?”

The EU’s track record on the issue has not been encouraging, she said. So far, member countries have agreed to resettle only 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece, where many live in overcrowded camps unable to cope with the influx. On Friday, the first 19 Eritreans left Rome’s Ciampino airport for Sweden, but eastern European nations’ refusal to comply with the refugee quota system set up in September has halted efforts to resettle more, leaving thousands stuck in camps.

A UNHCR spokesman said Wednesday that the primary responsibility to determine protection needs and provide protection rests with the country where asylum is sought. But he acknowledged that external processing arrangements could play a role in reducing the need for unsafe travel “in exceptional circumstances and with appropriate safeguards.”

Such safeguards should include, at a minimum, protection against refoulement, treatment in accordance with international law and priority for vulnerable refugees such as children, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said in an email.

But the enforcement of such protections can’t be guaranteed in “offshore processing centers” outside the EU in countries with “dubious to terrible human rights records,” said Fred Abrahams, an adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“How do you ensure fair treatment? How do you ensure they have access to make a claim, and [that] it’s fairly reviewed? How do you ensure that people don’t end up in protracted limbo?” he said. “It’s difficult enough to ensure the refugees can make their claim and have it properly adjudicated in Europe, so imagine how difficult it must be outside of the EU. It’s outsourcing without quality control.”

It would be better to open “safe and legal routes” to reach Europe, he added. He recommended increasing the number of refugees resettled through the UNHCR, setting up educational scholarships across the world for people in needs of international protection and easing restrictions on family unification.

“It is key that through developing these new ideas the actual protection of individuals is not undermined,” Collett said. “That’s got to be a core part of the design.” 

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