Faced with a surge in migration across the Mediterranean Sea, European Union officials apparently think the best way to manage migration is simply to keep migrants from reaching the shore. The EU Commission is currently weighing a plan to reform the union’s border policies by finding more elaborate ways to warehouse, filter, and ultimately push away its unwanted human cargo.
While the plan would do little to stem the social forces that drive people onto smuggling routes from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, it would aim to create a number of so-called “controlled centres,” hosted by countries that volunteer to serve as disembarkation points. Processing about 500 people at a time, teams of border agents would screen arrivals for “humanitarian” qualifications, to vet their backgrounds for eligibility for humanitarian protection as refugees, or to brand them mere “economic migrants,” to be forcibly returned. Participating frontline states would gain the EU’s infrastructural support and reimbursement of about 6,000 euros per migrant. But human-rights advocates warn that, like previous policies aimed at “deterrence,” the proposal would simply make the journey more miserable for migrants fleeing crisis in the Global South.
According to Amnesty International researcher Matteo DeBellis, the new approach to “burden sharing” across EU member states just disperses the crisis, and differs little from previous reform efforts. The problem with the current EU system is that, as there is no mandatory, organized distribution plan for migrants once they reach EU territory, migrants face a pinball-like maritime obstacle course, with government and civilian rescue vessels pushing drowning migrants back and forth. The chaos has led to massive human-rights abuses and a total failure to overhaul the so-called “Dublin system,” which compels migrants to seek asylum in the first country in which they step foot. Without fundamentally changing that framework, DeBellis argues, the proposed voluntary scheme of “controlled centers” could lead to “the automatic detention of people for weeks and potentially months.”
The proposed reforms reflect European politics rather than security or humanitarian protection. The main champion is the right-wing government of Italy, which is bridling at its default role as the first port of entry for most migrant vessels.
Although the program purports to ensure more orderly absorption of ships that have historically clustered in Southern Italy and Malta—where reactionary politicians are now moving to shutter their ports—Amnesty says the process won’t end unjust incarceration or mass suffering. Detention should be used “only in extreme circumstances—not automatically,” argues DeBellis. And on principle, authorities “need to consider that among rescued people there are children, torture survivors, pregnant women, human trafficking victims and people who are shocked and traumatized by surviving a shipwreck or perhaps by the loss of a relative. Are we really going to detain these people?”
Yet the detainees could be considered fortunate just for surviving the crossing. More than 1,510 migrants have died at sea so far in 2018. Over just two days in June, about 220 people drowned in three separate boating accidents bear Libya. Although the EU’s recent rush to tighten borders is at odds with a temporary dip in the actual number of arrivals, the risk is steadily intensifying. Overall, more than 57,550 people have crossed by sea, and another roughly 13,900 have crossed into Europe by land. Most hail from Africa or the Middle East, and have come by way of the ferociously violent ports of Libya—rife with squalid prison camps, militias, sexual assault, and slavery. The abuses could soon intensify as Italian security forces seek to deter boats by forcing them to remain offshore, and to reroute them back to Libya—to be handled by a coast guard known for its cruelty and corruption.
According to Amnesty’s latest analysis of the Mediterranean crossing, as Italy loses political will to undertake maritime rescues, and withdraws resources from its frontline border operations, it risks violating international maritime law, which mandates rescuing anyone in distress, unconditionally. Increasingly, migrants will face “unreliable, unpredictable, and punitive treatment…left stranded at sea for days, even weeks, as each disembarkation is negotiated individually.”
“In its callous refusal to allow refugees and migrants to disembark in its ports,” Amnesty says, “Italy is using human lives as bargaining chips.” The whispered objective of European border-reform efforts is simply sealing the border. Several far-right electoral victories across Europe have pushed governments to crack down on both land and sea routes, as voters grow increasingly hostile to outsiders.
On the land border, meanwhile, Hungary’s far-right government has been moving to criminalize aid workers by passing laws against “facilitating illegal migration,” which could subject humanitarian organizations to criminal sanction for informing asylum seekers about their rights or “building or operating a network” to provide relief to traveling migrants. A second measure aims to uphold the country’s “Christian culture.” Noting that their own staff in Hungary could be targeted by the law, Amnesty says such policies use border security as a pretext for undermining civil society and democracy across Europe.
The eagerness to criminalize aid workers is mirrored in the United States, where volunteers helping migrants cross the desert lands surrounding the US-Mexico border have reported being systematically targeted for arrest. Around the world, reactionary politicians are trying to blur the line between humanitarianism and criminality, even as they codify discrimination and brutality into law.
The real solution, for better or worse, is as complex as the crisis itself. On the Mediterranean, Amnesty argues that instead of trying to “externalize” the border crisis to the Libyan regime, the priority should be to provide immediate rescue and, in the long run, address the systemic drivers of migration through transnational cooperation. Migration will wane when instability and poverty are resolved in Africa and other regions in crisis. However, this requires long-term “poverty-eradication policies accompanied by serious efforts to improve access to human rights.” In the immediate term, in DeBellis’s view, Europe already has resources to “help reduce the number of people who risk their lives…by offering safe and legal routes for both refugees and migrants.” But regardless of which shore people ultimately resettle on, “as long as policies are built only around the idea that Europe should build walls and close ports, then both refugees and migrants will continue to risk their lives to flee human rights violations or to follow their aspirations.”
Today, Europe’s inhumane border policies flout those universal aspirations. The continent’s leaders can either act to bring long-overdue justice to the Mediterranean crossing, or continue to invite death to its gates.