Monday, May 7, 2012

Memo to EU leaders: migration is not a crime

Fancy a new job?

Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, has announced it will soon recruit a fundamental rights officer. I hope the successful candidate will be handsomely rewarded. Few bodies are more in need of advice about how to treat human beings in distress.

An annual “risk analysis” paper published by Frontex during April indicates it has difficulty distinguishing between people and inanimate objects. The paper deals with migration, then turns to “other illegal issues” such as stolen vehicles and cigarette smuggling. Bracketing all of these as “illegal issues” is perverse. Whereas trading contraband tobacco is a crime, trying to flee poverty or persecution is not. Migrants and asylum-seekers often have to travel on false documents but that is no more than an administrative offence.

It is illuminating to compare this paper with the results of a recent investigation on migrants arriving in Italy by the 47-country Council of Europe.

Frontex informs us that between January and March last year, some 20,000 Tunisians landed on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Although the agency acknowledges that there had been “civil unrest” in North Africa at the time and large numbers of Tunisians left their country “as a result”, it contradicts itself a few pages later. “The flow of Tunisian migrants who crossed the border illegally appeared to be mostly economically-driven, with most heading to France as their final destination,” it says, adding that there was a significantly higher rate of “detection” for “illegally-staying” Tunisians in 2011 than in 2010.

Tearing families apart

The Council of Europe report, by contrast, refers to how some Tunisians its team interviewed in Lampedusa were married to citizens of EU member states, particularly Denmark and the Netherlands, yet were unable to enter the Union by regular channels. This puts the allegation that Tunisians are living illegally in the EU in an entirely new perspective. Do EU authorities now forbid people from travelling to sleep in the same bed as their spouses?

Lampedusa is on the agenda of the European Parliament once again this week. A delegation of MEPs is following up on a visit it undertook to the centres where migrants are detained on Lampedusa in November last. A number of dead bodies have been found on boats arriving in Lampedusa since that visit occurred. In another incident, 74 Somalis were kept for three days on a Tunisian fishing boat south of Lampedusa before being returned to Tunisia. About 2,000 people have died annually over the past two years while trying to reach Europe by sea. Rather than addressing this human tragedy, some politicians compete with each other to see who can be nastiest towards the world’s vulnerable. Marine Le Pen made a trip to Lampedusa during 2011; this afforded her an opportunity to accuse the European authorities of “averting their gaze” to migration flows. It is telling that Nicolas Sarkozy has spent the past couple of weeks trying to paint himself as just as extreme as his Front National rival.

Le Pen’s claim doesn’t stand up. Far from “averting their gaze” to migration, authorities have used brutal methods to prevent migrants reaching our shores. In February this year, the European Court of Human Rights found against Italy in a case involving 200 migrants who were intercepted at sea off Lampedusa in 2009 and then forced back to Libya. The Strasbourg-based court ruled that the military operation violated a ban on collective expulsions, as well as a clause in the European Convention of Human Rights, stating that individuals should not be sent to countries where they are likely to be at risk of ill-treatment or oppression.

Gadaffi: a subcontractor for Fortress Europe

Muammar Gadaffi was still in power when those expulsions occurred. Both Italy and the European Commission were happy for him to act as a kind of subcontractor for the EU’s asylum and migration system. The fact that the concept of asylum wasn’t recognised in Libyan law and that he had never signed up to a 1951 convention that forms the cornerstone of international refugee law was viewed as no more than a minor irritant in Brussels and Rome.

Now that Gadaffi is dead, Italy is keen to restore “business as usual” relations with the Tripoli authorities. Barely two months after becoming an unelected prime minister, Mario Monti hotfooted it to Libya. His chief concern was to ensure that contracts signed between Italian firms and the Gadaffi regime remained valid. But you can be sure that migration issues are being discussed too; the interior minister in Monti’s government was in Libya last month.

Saving human lives is not a priority for some senior figures in Italy. In March last year, 61 African migrants on their way from Libya to Lampedusa were left to die in the Mediterranean. Tineke Strik, a member of the Dutch Senate who has investigated the incident, has expressed astonishment at how the Italian border guards “felt no responsibility whatsoever” to verify what happened to the boat.

Italy is by no means alone in abusing the rights to asylum. Belgium expelled three people to Syria in March this year after rejecting their asylum claims. (One of these was Iraqi, the other two Syrian). The expulsions amounted to an “up yours” salute to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which has urged a halt on forced returns to Syria until the political situation improves.

By disregarding international law, it is our governments that are behaving illegally, not the people sailing towards our shores.

●First published by New Europe, 6-12 May 2012.

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