Deal would give Cairo trade concessions
CAIRO, Egypt –European officials are mulling a plan to give Cairo trade concessions and additional money on top of their ongoing support for the recently approved $12 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt in return for accepting African refugees intercepted on their way to Italy and Greece.
President Abdel-Fatteh Al-Sisi, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Chancellor Merkel’s foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen and Germany’s refugee policy coordinator Jan Hecker have met in Egypt in recent weeks to discuss the proposal, with German officials reportedly floating the idea of replicating Australia’s solution for Asian migrants, according to officials at the German embassy in Cairo and in the German government.
The Australian model is to use nearby island nations such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea to take those found at sea and bring them to detention centers for resettlement and processing.
Few details of the European plan have been released. “These talks are sensitive and we are not yet ready to disclose the details,” a German diplomat in Cairo told The Media Line. “But I can
say cooperation with all countries has the shared goal of improving living conditions of migrants in place, preventing illegal migration and fighting people smuggling which results in thousands of deaths each year.”
The Egyptians were more expansive. “It’s important to address the phenomenon of illegal immigration by adopting a comprehensive strategy that addresses the economic and social causes that lead the youth to immigrate illegally,” said President Sisi after hosting European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos earlier this week at the presidential palace in Cairo. The Cairo-Berlin consultations follow a hardening of attitudes toward immigrants among the German public after the country took in almost a million refugees last year: That rising sentiment across Europe led to a European Union agreement with Turkey to accept refugees deported from Western Europe in exchange for cash and visa concessions for its
However, in August, Egypt’s deputy foreign minister Hisham Badr complained about the $6.4 billion EU-Turkey deal to European Parliament officials in Brussels saying Cairo was assisting five million refugees from Africa and the Middle East with little support from Europe. Now that the EU-Turkey deal has stalled, the EU is now looking seriously to North Africa as an alternative, and seemingly ready to pay up.
“The EU is willing to support Egypt and improve its resettlement efforts,” said Avramopoulos this week. Europe has already allocated more than $1 billion toward a special Trust Fund for Urgent Actions in Africa to fund migration management and address its root causes, according to EU figures. At the same time, the EU is considering financial incentives to help Egypt create jobs to prevent its nationals from joining the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian migrants who have been flooding into Europe for two years.
The International Migration Organization estimates that up to 12,000 Egyptians attempted illegal boat journeys this year. In September, more than 160 migrants died when their boat sank off the country’s northern coast. In June, more than 300 migrants and refugees drowned off the coast of Crete in June. Survivors say both boats originated in Egypt. “I will be held accountable for the death of each person who dies due to illegal migration,” said Sisi after the September shipwreck.
EU officials acknowledge their obligation to take in refugees from Syria and Iraq but say most economic migrants arriving via the central Mediterranean route come from African countries and have no legal claim to asylum. “Migrants not in need of international protection and who have no right to stay in Europe should be returned,” said Avramopoulos.
And while interested in helping Cairo reduce its 30 percent youth unemployment rate and also the number of migrant Egyptians, it is mostly this year’s influx of 106,000 migrants from Libya with more than 275,000 waiting to follow suit that has concerned European officials.
Still, Libya is off the table for such a plan: The country in September rejected a Hungarian plan to host migrants in “transitional cities” in the North African country, prompting Europe to turn to
Egypt and Tunisia as alternative resettlement destinations. “The crisis in our country makes these proposals unrealistic,” said Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala in response to the
Hungarian proposal, adding that handling hundreds of thousands of African asylum-seekers is beyond the capacity of his government as it copes with a civil war. But EU officials say something must be done to prevent more migration and more deaths.
At the same time, Operation Sophia, the EU initiative to rescue migrants off the coast of Libya, has been criticized in Europe for encouraging more to risk the dangerous voyage knowing that if their boat is in danger they will be saved and brought into European ports.
Still, some 4,220 people have died in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean this year surpassing the 2015 figure of 3,777 according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency.
Some question the move. Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University political scientist, doubts the plan to send migrants back to Africa, would be legal under international law. “Be it war or turmoil, they must have fled their countries for a reason – returning migrants to any country is a severe violation of human rights,” said Nafaa said.
He noted instead that the plan reflects Europe’s distaste for refugees rather than a genuine attempt to help migrants. “These new initiatives are directly correlated with the rise of the extreme right-wing groups in Germany,” said Naffa noting the “Australian Plan” for African refugees was first raised by Frauke Petry, head of the ultra-nationalist AfD party that defeated Merkel’s Christian Democrats in her own state of Mecklenburg in September’s provincial elections.
The main issue in the German regional elections was the influx of refugees and migrants.