Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
Last October, a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana, sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The accident claimed the lives of over 360 people. It was reported that the boat sailed from Libya which is one of the main departure countries of people migrating to Italy.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, visited Lampedusa together with the then prime minister of Italy, Enrico Letta. Barroso promised 30 million euro to Italy for helping the refugees. Barroso said that the tragedy “saddened and shocked” him while Enrico Letta apologised “for the inadequacies of Italy in relation to tragedy like this” and that the accident was “an immense tragedy”.
However, only eight days later, 34 migrants from Syria and Palestine drowned near Lampedusa. And again, on June 30, dead bodies of 30 migrants were found on the coast of Sicily.
Sometimes the deaths of migrants trying to make their way to Europe make headlines, sometimes they don’t.
On April 16, the European Parliament approved the draft regulation for Frontex-coordinated surveillance of the union’s external sea borders. Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, reinforces and streamlines cooperation between national border authorities.
According to an official EU press release, “the new regulation will apply to sea operations coordinated by Frontex. Its provisions on interception as well as search and rescue situations and disembarkation will be entirely binding”.
The new Regulation will enter into force after it has been formally approved by the EU Council of Ministers.
Among the most important tasks of Frontex is preventing “illegal immigration”. Although Frontex, in its own words, “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter”, the actual record of the agency speaks for itself.
According to the The Migrants Files, a research project which aims at informing the public on the number of deaths as a result of EU Member States migration policies, more than 23,000 people have died on their way to Europe since the year 2000.
Between 1992 and 1995, approximately 400 migrants lost their lives. Frontex was established in 2004. Since then, the death toll has been on the rise. For example, between 2008 and 2011, the death toll was around 6000. It bares emphasis that no EU member state nor any EU institution publish any statistics on these casualties.
EU’s problematic stance towards immigration is nothing new. Those non-Europeans fleeing from their home countries due to war or persecution are often not welcomed to the Europe.
EU member states and Frontex are bound by national, international and European law to respect human rights when exercising push-backs of migrants. The cornerstone of asylum and international refugee law is the principle of non-refoulement which states:
“No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler‘) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
In 2012, European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for its push-backs of migrants to Libya. In a historic Hirsi ruling, the court found that Italy violated the prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment, the prohibition on collective expulsion and the right to effective remedy.
In the Hirsi v. Italy case, 11 Somalis and 13 Eritreans were intercepted in the highs seas, near Lampedusa, by Italian authorities. They were deported back to Libya without been given the chance to make their case or without been identified.
The European Court of Human Rights has argued in the Hirsi ruling that each person on a boat must have access to interpreters and legal advisers and that each one’s personal circumstances must be addressed. On the question of respecting the principle of non-refoulement and fair asylum procedure, the Resolution on Minimum Guarantees asserts: “In order to ensure effectively the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, no expulsion measure will be carried out as long as no decision has been taken on the asylum application.”
Many EU member states nonetheless have violated and keep violating crucial provisions of the European human rights law.
In another case in 2011, in the midst of the Libyan civil war, 72 migrants from Tripoli lost control of their boat after running out of fuel. They emitted distress signal every 4 hours for 10 straight days.
The Italian Coast Guard received these distress calls and the boat had various points of contacts with a military helicopter, a large military vessel and two fishing vessels.
After 15 days, the boat landed back to Libyan coast with 63 died. The military vessel violated its obligations to rescue people in distress.
Dan Haile Gebre, one of the survivors described the encounter with the Italian authorities as follow: “At first the ship was very far. Maybe 700 meters. They then circled around us, three times, until they came very close – -. We are watching them, they are watching us. We are showing them the dead bodies. We drank water from the sea to show them we were thirsty. The people on the boat took pictures, nothing else.”
According to The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), regarded as the oldest human rights organization in the world, over 2000 people died or disappeared in the Mediterranean only in the year 2011, during the Libyan crisis.
At the same time, also during the Libyan civil war, The High Representative of the European Union for External Policy, Catherine Ashton condemned the Libyan authorities. Her formulation deserves to be quoted in full:
“The European Union is extremely concerned by the events unfolding in Libya and the reported deaths of a very high number of demonstrators. We condemn the repression against peaceful demonstrators and deplore the violence and the death of civilians.
The EU urges the authorities to exercise restraint and calm and to immediately refrain from further use of violence against peaceful demonstrators. Freedom of expression and the right to assemble, as provided for in particular by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, are human rights and fundamental freedoms of every human being which must be respected and protected”.
It is interesting that these concerns on human rights and fundamental freedoms were nowhere to been seen just a year before, in 2010, when EU was keen to strike a deal with Muammar Gaddafi.
Cooperation of EU and Frontex with Libya in the field of migration policy and refugees is dubious since Libya is not party to the 1951 UN refugee convention. The EU co-funded several projects with Libya on migration control. The cooperation of EU and Frontex with a state that rejected independent human rights organizations and ordered the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to leave the country speaks volumes of Europe’s commitment to human rights.
Although Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has demanded that the Greek authorities adhere to their obligations, very little has been done. MSF emphasized that “[i]n places of detention, overcrowding, inadequate heating, insufficient hot water, poor ventilation, a lack of access to the outdoors and a poor diet contribute to the emergence and spread of respiratory, gastrointestinal, dermatological and musculoskeletal diseases among detainees. Detention is also detrimental to their mental health: symptoms of anxiety, depression and psychosomatic manifestations are observed in many, while it is not uncommon for desperate migrants to go on hunger strike, to self-harm and even to attempt suicide. – – Other EU member states and European institutions cannot continue to shirk their share of responsibility”.
Many human rights organizations have highlighted that the new Frontex regulation does not fulfill the criteria established by the European Court of Human Rights in Hirsi ruling on the highs seas.
Benjamin Ward, The Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch has voiced his concerns: “The proposed regulation is silent on the question of an appeal with suspensive effect, access to interpreters and legal assistance. In practice, it is difficult to see how those safeguards could be applied to people unless they were first brought to EU territory after initial on board screening”. Such conduct violates the procedural safeguards elaborated in Hirsi.
Another problem, according to Ward, is that the proposed regulation continues to permit Frontex to turn back vessels in international waters heading towards EU without considering the protection needs of those on board.
Illegal and systematic push-backs do not only occur in the high seas but also across land borders. In 2012, UNHCR issued that those fleeing Syria are to be treated in a manner that respects and guarantees minimum humanitarian standards, including access to territory and safety and protection from refoulement. Notwithstanding these rather unequivocal UNHCR requirements, Syrian refugees are continuously pushed back at Greece’s borders.
Notwithstanding the geographical vicinity of EU to Syria, let alone EU’s vast resources, it is perhaps not surprising that, in the light of such EU-Frontex policies, only 3 percent of the 2.7 million people fleeing from the Syrian civil war have sought refuge in EU.