Dallal Stevens is an academic in the Law School at Warwick University who has been researching and writing about immigration and asylum issues for more than 20 years. Here she explains why the European Union’s response to the refugee crisis in Southern Europe is inadequate. Instead of focusing solely on border control and deterrence, leaders must develop a longer term and more humane response.
People have been crossing the Mediterranean and drowning for decades. It is the scale and frequency that has changed. The EU response has been consistent: migration management, deterrence and border controls, while always claiming a desire to ensure ‘protection and saving lives’. But, as the evidence has sadly shown, these are often contradictory objectives, and with the anti-migrant rhetoric that prevails in many EU Member States, protection inevitably suffers at the behest of greater controls.
Indeed, the scaling back of rescue operations in November 2014 was largely due to the belief by a number of EU governments that search and rescue constitutes a “pull-factor”; little attention was given to the myriad significant “push-factors” driving people across the water.
How far have EU heads of state shifted in their stance in light of the rising death toll? Sadly, the EU statement issued following the emergency summit on 23 April 2015 has mirrored previous outcomes – security, enforcement, prevention are once more highlighted. Offering protection to refugees is noticeably absent. It is time that EU leaders recognise that the pursuit of deterrence and control is never going to be sufficient; nor is it legally or morally acceptable, where refugees are concerned.
Greater understanding of why people are making the journey across the Mediterranean is absolutely vital. Former UK foreign secretary, William Hague, described the issue as one of ‘immigration’ and warned against solutions that ‘relax immigration controls’ or lead to ‘uncontrolled immigration’. The implication of Hague’s comments (and those of many other politicians across Europe), is that those crossing the Mediterranean are “economic migrants” trying to evade immigration controls. But, at least 50% of those who made the crossing in 2014 were refugees or people in desperate need of international protection: Syrians, Eritreans, Somalis, Iraqis and, increasingly, Palestinians. A large number of the remainder are from sub-Saharan Africa, some of whom were working in Libya but now fear for their lives on account of the country’s deteriorating conditions and are unable to return home.
There are few legal and safe routes for refugees. There is no visa for asylum.
So why are they prepared to take this perilous journey? The answer is clear. For refugees, there are few legal and safe routes to asylum and they are left with no alternatives. There is no visa for asylum. Over 3.9 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries – Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, which are struggling to cope. Over 25% of the population of Lebanon is now composed of Syrian refugees. Turkey has become the largest country of asylum in the world. Lebanon has begun to tighten restrictions on entry of Syrian refugees and other countries in the region are flirting with the idea. Yet, the majority of EU states still refuse to respond to repeated calls by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to increase their resettlement quotas (though Germany has pledged to take 30,000 Syrians, the UK has accepted only 143 people to date). For migrant workers trapped in Libya, there are limited options and some have been forced to turn to the sea to escape. Repeatedly, those rescued have stated that they would rather risk dying in the attempt to reach Europe than remain where they were.
A holistic approach, that recognises the complexity of the issue, is therefore called for.
In the short term, the response has to be humanitarian with rescue at the forefront. While the heads of state appear to have agreed to strengthen the EU’s presence at sea, it is worrying that they talk of increasing the search and rescue possibilities ‘within the mandate of Frontex’. Frontex is the European agency charged with managing the external borders of the EU. It’s worrying because it is not clear that search and rescue is a concern of Frontex – its raison d’être is in fact border surveillance and control.
Migrant workers trapped in Libya have been forced to turn to the sea to escape.
A legalistic interpretation of Frontex’s mandate could deem the humanitarian operations of search and rescue beyond the group’s responsibility and thus limit the proposed operations. What is certain, however, is that those rescued must be properly screened to determine who is in need of protection and EU states should share the responsibility of hosting refugees in accordance with duties of mutual co-operation. But already there are concerns that co-operation is breaking down. As Rebecca Omonira argues in Lacuna today, the dehumanisation of refugees and migrants through language and rhetoric makes it easier for politicians to limit the support offered.
That the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, felt compelled to issue ‘a scathing and extraordinary intervention’ is indicative of how bad the situation has become. He lambasts a tabloid newspaper columnist’s use of the word ‘cockroach’ to describe migrants, adding that a vicious cycle of ‘vilification, intolerance and politicization of migrants’ had sapped ‘compassion for the thousands of people fleeing conflict, human rights violations and economic deprivation who are drowning in the Mediterranean’. He said: ‘The nasty underbelly of racism that is characterizing the migration debate in an increasing number of EU countries, has skewed the EU response to the crisis.’
Even the term “saving lives” is contentious. Used by the Australian government to justify stringent policies of deterrence, regional resettlement with poor countries such as Papua New Guinea, offshore processing and turning boats back, it is, instead, inflicting considerable suffering on desperate people and completely ignores the persecution and human rights violations from which many flee. This same language found its way into David Cameron’s post-summit comments. He said: ‘… It was right for the Royal Navy to play a role, they will be saving lives, not offering people asylum in the UK … and taking them to Italy or other nearby countries.’ This undermines the notion of solidarity amongst EU states, just as Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi declared himself satisfied with the outcome of the summit as indicating that the burden of taking in refugees would now be shared.
People resort to smugglers because there are no other options for them to access asylum or emigrate.
In the medium to longer terms, greater investment for enforcement against smuggling and trafficking networks is needed. But people only resort to smugglers because there are no other options to access asylum or emigrate. Consequently, alternative forms of admission must also be offered and provided. The UNHCR is willing to consider processing arrangements in Africa and the Middle East with European involvement where resettlement is part of the possible outcome. Anyone not in need of protection can be removed from the EU territory, if conducted safely and appropriately.
But these are not straightforward options. The removal of those refused asylum can be a complex, sensitive and lengthy process. The proposal to externalise asylum or refugee status determination has been raised in the past under different guises but was deemed either too controversial or unworkable. For it to be a viable proposition, there must be confidence that people will be treated with respect, accommodated and supported appropriately while awaiting a decision, offered a chance of admission to a stable country, and only returned to their country of origin if they are found not to be a refugee and it is safe to do so. This must not become a means by which the EU discharges its responsibility for refugees on to the poorest and most volatile countries in the world.
Ultimately, people will always move so long as there is poverty, conflict and human rights abuse. The EU has an important role to play in improving conditions in the world, removing the need for migration and flight, and establishing compassionate, humane and workable policies. It is not just a question of saving lives; all humans are entitled to live their lives safely, in dignity and to flourish.