Time to turn back asylum seekers - Belgium MP

  • 12/05/2017
Theo Francken (Reuters)
Theo Francken (Reuters)

The European Union must not accept African migrants who pay people smugglers to cross the Mediterranean, but turn them back, Belgium's migration minister Theo Francken says.

Only then could the bloc open up legal pathways for refugees and migrants into Europe and fly them in under an annual cap, he said, rather than get more of the uncontrolled influx that saw 1.6 million people reach its shores in 2014-2016.

"This system is totally crazy and is not working. We have to fix this by being very clear: taking a ticket on a smuggler boat does not give you free entrance into the European continent," said Mr Francken, who is with the Flemish nationalist N-VA party.

"The current system is totally inhumane," he said, adding it enriched international criminal networks dealing with people smuggling at the expense of thousands dying on the sea crossing.

Mr Francken made clear his comments referred to all Africans - north and sub-Saharan - and to those coming in smugglers' boats, who make up the great majority of those sailing to Europe.

Some 50,000 have made it across the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, most of them African migrants unlikely to win asylum in Europe.

As they flee acute poverty, they board flimsy smugglers' boats in lawless Libya that are unfit for the voyage, are saved at sea by European rescue vessels, and get taken to Italy. EU laws now forbid sending them back to Libya, and repatriating those whose asylum cases fail is complicated.

Mr Francken said Europe applies humanitarian laws too broadly and people intercepted in the Mediterranean should be turned back, or disembarked in other African states like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria.

"More legal routes, more resettlement, no problem. But it means we bring back the boats that leave illegally. It is one or the other," he said. "It's not about flying in real refugees and then accepting people from Nigeria and countries that have a low [asylum] recognition rate."

"Do it for two weeks and it stops immediately. Nobody will pay thousands of euros to end up in Tunisia, Egypt or Morocco... The rumour with spread quickly that it has finished."

Such pushbacks, pioneered by Australia, are controversial, with aid groups sounding alarm that they violate human rights by returning people who are already distressed and in dire circumstances to miserable prospects.

The outspoken Mr Francken has often stirred controversy in Belgium, clashing repeatedly with rights groups and leftist politicians, forcing his prime minister to call him back into line.