GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations aid agencies welcomed a migration deal reached by European Union leaders on Friday but urged the bloc to prioritize the lives and safety of migrants in its approach.
After nine hours of often heated talks, EU leaders agreed to share out refugees arriving in the bloc on a voluntary basis and create “controlled centers” inside the European Union to process asylum requests.
“We will welcome any outcome from Europe that leads to a more collaborative and harmonized approach to asylum, and also one that has at its core and priority saving lives at sea,” Charlie Yaxley of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR told a briefing.
More than 1,000 people have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean already in 2018, a “grim milestone” for the fifth year in a row, he said.
Later on Friday, a Libyan coastguard official said that around 100 people are thought to have drowned from a migrant boat off Libya’s western coast.
The Brussels summit underscored how Europe’s 2015 spike in immigration continues to haunt the bloc, despite a sharp drop in arrivals of people fleeing conflict and economic hardship in the Middle East and Africa.
Leonard Doyle of the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration said that “any solution needs to be a European solution” that helps frontline states led by Italy. To the extent possible, the processing centers should be in Europe.
“It’s anticipated that the majority of the regional disembarkation points as they are so called will be in Europe,” he said.
“The crucial point really is that you now have a rationalization of the existing search and rescue (operations) and you have a predictable mechanism to provide immediate assistance to those who have been saved,” Doyle said.
“And it all hinges on the commitments they have made to immediately distribute those who have been rescued among the countries who are part of the new mechanism,” he added.
Disembarkation points should not be located in Libya due to insecurity and lawlessness, the agencies said. Sites must meet international human rights standards, such as access to food and health care, and be subject to rigorous monitoring.
UNHCR’s Yaxley, referring to Libya, said: “We are and remain very concerned about the use of detention there, people remain exposed to considerable risks at the hands of human traffickers and smugglers.
“So we wouldn’t want to see an increase in the numbers of people taken to Libya at this point,” he said.
The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it awaited clarification about the treatment of children.
“It’s important also to remember that the majority of children coming in on the Italy route, the central Mediterranean route, are unaccompanied - 92 percent,” UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe said.
“So they need special care and protection and obviously we await further clarification and details that children will not be detained in this way because ...there are alternatives,” she said, citing voluntary guardianship and foster care.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky