The capsizing of a boat carrying refugees off the coast of Lampedusa, with over 800 confirmed deaths, is both a human tragedy and a human error. But the disaster forms just one part of the tapestry of widespread and endemic failures amongst European leaders to fulfil their legal and moral duties towards asylum seekers.
The boat capsized after the migrants saw a merchant ship in the distance and scrambled to attract its attention, over-balancing the fishing boat in which they were travelling. It is hardly surprising that they would seek to do so; survivors tell stories of people below deck struggling for their breath and massive over-crowding, leading to squalid conditions.
“A pregnant woman vomited and started screaming”, survivor Hakim Bello writes in the Guardian. “Below deck, people were shouting that they couldn’t breathe, so the men in charge of the boat went down and started beating them”.
The Central Mediterranean sea has, in recent years, become the deadliest route of transfer for refugees seeking a better life in Europe. Demand has enormously increased since the Arab Spring and deterioration of the security situations in many Middle Eastern countries. Individuals now flock in the thousands onto the boats, fleeing from deadly wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic and South Sudan. Troublingly, the response to this from European leaders has been to run from the problem and to look away as Member States fail to live up to their international law obligations.
In spite of fierce international criticism, the Italian search-and-rescue mission disbanded last October, purportedly owing to lack of funds and support from other EU Member States. The costs amounted to approximately €9 million per month, and Italy’s more affluent Northern European allies failed to contribute in such a way as to sustain the life-saving mission. The UK, for instance, axed its support for the mission in October, claiming that the existence of the search and rescue operations “encouraged” more people to attempt the crossing. It was replaced by an EU-coordinated mission named Triton, but from the outset, it was clear that this was not going to match the Italian operation in numbers or efficacy. Rather than replicating the Italian mission, which carried out proactive search and rescue across 27,000 square miles of sea, the engineers of Triton envisaged the mission focusing on border surveillance and operating only within 30 miles of the Italian coast. Its budget, €2.9m, was less than a third that of its predecessor. As a result, there has been a 50-fold increase in deaths so far this year. Over 3,000 immigrants died in 2014, and this year more than 1,500 have already perished, with this figure likely to increase as the rescue operation in Lampedusa increases.
Not only has the protection of vulnerable refugees been utterly side-lined by the EU with regards to rescue missions; the EU’s policy priorities have ensured that life gets no better for those that survive the journey over. Current policies in Brussels are heavily tilted towards the deterrence and prevention of irregular migration rather than providing protection to those who need it. Particularly illustrative of this are the conditions at the infamous Greek migrant detention centres.
In the first place, “push-backs”, the phenomenon whereby authorities push back and forcibly expel migrants arriving at their borders, are common. Reports by Amnesty International have revealed that this problem is routine and widespread; in January 2014, an alleged pushback operation near the island of Farmakonisi led to the deaths of 12 refugees. The incident occurred amidst a wave of criticism prompted by allegations of systematic pushbacks of Syrian asylum seekers across the Turkish border. Moreover, victims of pushbacks have described being slapped, beaten and subject to verbal abuse. Push-backs are expressly prohibited in international refugee law, under the 1967 Geneva Convention Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, as well as under European Union and Greek domestic law. Yet the actions of the EU seem to encourage, rather than condemn, this practice. This is demonstrated by the Commission’s priorities in this area. The European Commission allocated €227,576,503 for Greece to keep refugees and migrants out from 2011 until the end of 2013. However, in the same period, only €19,950,000 was allocated to assisting their reception upon arrival.
In general, moreover, there is a lack of sufficient oversight given to the treatment of refugees in detention centres. Numerous non-governmental organisations and observers have condemned the conditions in the facilities: the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights noted in his report on his recent visit to Greece that between 2009 and 2012, the European Court on Human Rights issued 11 judgments against Greece related to violation of article 3 of the ECHR (prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) with regards to migrants’ detention conditions. According to Médécins Sans Frontières, the detention centres themselves are “a living hell” and provide a breeding ground for diseases. Outbreaks of scabies in overcrowded camps were commonplace. So, too, were respiratory infections, gastrointestinal disorders, musculoskeletal problems and dental problems. There have even been a few cases of tuberculosis, fostered by the poor standards of hygiene and overcrowding.
The mass of reports on conditions in the centres suggests that it only gets worse. W2EU reported in February 2013 that 7 Syrian and 4 Palestinian refugees who had newly arrived in Greece– among them 14 children and two pregnant women – were detained in a cage-like building next to the coast guard for more than six days.
Civil society has therefore been aware of the insurmountable evidence of Greek refugee abuse for a long time now. The European Court of Justice has even held on a number of occasions that sending refugees to Greece would violate their fundamental rights, owing to “systemic flaws in the asylum procedure” and “conditions…resulting in inhuman or degrading treatment. Yet the EU has failed completely to apply adequate pressure on the Greek government to force them to fulfil their obligations and treat asylum seekers with the basic level of human dignity that they are entitled to.
In February, Syriza, the recently elected governing party of Greece, pledged to abolish the detention centres. Deputy Interior Minister Panousis said the government would set up “open” reception centres with better facilities to replace the widely-condemned facilities in place. This announcement could not have come sooner: in a revolt against the very poor detention conditions and the prolonged detention periods, people detained at the detention centre in Amygdaleza started a riot on 10th August 2013 in protest of the treatment they were receiving. Amnesty International reports that police guards cut off the electricity in two of the containers used as sleeping areas after the migrants started using the air conditioning; some were hit and verbally abused by police.
A full response to the problem, which measures up to the demand for asulym in Europe and does not deprive refugees of their fundamental rights, needs a response on a European level. Individual Member States left alone have neither the resources, nor the political will, to take on this challenge single-handedly. The recent disaster, described as “genocide” by the Maltese Prime Minister, should hopefully provide the impetus that the problem has so long needed. The EU has long hailed itself as a guarantor of fundamental rights, but in order to preserve a shred of legitimacy in this regard, it must treat its most vulnerable with the basic humanity they risked their lives to enjoy.