Friday, 22 May 2009

Italy should respect international law

Greece faces a mounting problem of illegal immigration. Last year official statistics recorded over 146,000 illegal arrivals, a 30 percent rise on the previous year, which had seen an 18 percent rise on the year before. Keeping them off an archipelago of more than a thousand islands that come to within a nautical mile of Asia seems as futile an exercise as shooing finches from a forest.

Greece's 1,200-kilometre land border fares little better. It faces the collapsed communist regimes of Albania, former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, origin of some 600,000 legal immigrants now residing in Greece. Most came across on foot illegally and submitted to legalisation procedures held in 1998, 2001 and 2005.

The migrants arriving now are the dispossessed of Africa and Asia. Some hail from the war-torn regions of Afghanistan and Iraq; others are simply poor. They deliberately carry no identifying documents so that, should Greece have the budget to repatriate them, it would not know where.

Current Greek practice is to house, feed and medically attend to the new arrivals in a dozen receiving centres scattered nationwide for three days. After that, they are released with a piece of paper ordering them to remove themselves from Greek territory within a month. Should they be caught in Greece after that, however, there is little the police can do. The country's prisons are already straining, and there is a three-month incarceration limit for illegal migrants.

Like the other Mediterranean gateways to the European Union, Malta, Italy and Spain, Greece does not have any attractive legal options for dealing with the problem. Absorption can only be limited. (Its unemployment rate is set to rise to eight percent this year and about nine percent next year. Its need for manual labour in construction has diminished dramatically, while its agricultural jobs are seasonal and already spoken for).

The secret hope of Greek authorities is that these people will move on to the larger labour markets of northern Europe - hence their amassing in Patra and Igoumenitsa, Greece's ports facing Italy.

Inevitably, though, many find employment or exploitation in crime. The streets of central Athens between city hall on Athinas Avenue and Gazi on Peiraios Avenue are home to thousands of prostitutes, drug addicts, petty criminals or unemployed migrants.

Some decide to file for political asylum, a process that allows them a stay of anything between six and 24 months during processing. But Greece sees asylum as a back door to economic migration, and has made a practice of turning down the vast majority of applicants. The United Nations, European Union and Amnesty International have written scathing reports about this. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, Greece offered asylum to 140 people from among 25,113 applicants.

If Greece seems to flaunt the spirit of international law, this may be in part because it has had a very frustrating time trying to implement it with its neighbour, Turkey. With the collapse of communist economies now long replaced by viable job markets to the north, heavily assisted by tens of billions of euros' worth of Greek investments, the vast majority of illegal immigration comes from the shores of Asia Minor.

Greece and Turkey signed a bilateral agreement for the repatriation of illegal immigrants during the diplomatic idyll which started with Istanbul's September 1999 earthquake, where Greek rescue teams were the first to arrive from overseas, and ended with the failure of the Annan Plan to reunify Cyprus in April 2004. In an annual immigration report released earlier this year, the interior ministry says that since April 2002, when the agreement came into force, the ministry has formally sought the repatriation of more than 57,000 migrants it was able to prove as hailing from Turkish shores. The number admitted by Turkey was 2,182.

Greece accuses Turkey of deliberate bureaucratic delays that push repatriation claims past a three-month deadline, and of rejecting hard evidence such as arrested Turkish traffickers (2,211 last year) accompanying migrants, or the possession of Turkish currency and bus tickets.

Greece is receiving European Union assistance to the tune of 13.7 million euros last year with which to bolster its coastguard fleet and hire border patrol guards on its northern border. But the extra muscle does not repel migrants. If Greece is to obey the Geneva Convention, the cornerstone of international humanitarian law, the only thing the coastguard can do is help refugees by plucking them out of the water and taking them to receiving centres. This the coastguard says it assiduously does, although it jealously guards its privacy from the prying eyes of both Greek and international journalists.

Italy, on the other hand, has followed an unconventional path. As part of a security agreement signed with Libya last year, its coast guard turns refugee ships around on the high seas and sends them back.

This practice brought a severe reprimand from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A May 18 communique from the UNHCR says, "The High Commission stressed [to the Italian government] that its new policy comes into conflict with the principle of non-repatriation enshrined in the Geneva Convention of 1951."

Libya does not possess the facilities to process asylum applications for the refugees, the UNHCR said, and said Italy was bound to take into its care children and pregnant women if no one else.

The Italian method comes as a natural successor to a proposal floated by Britain and other EU members in 2004 to concentrate asylum applicants in "safe countries" abutting the EU. The proposal was dropped after the UNHCR said it put countries in danger of breaking international law.

Fighting organised crime which facilitates trafficking, investing in countries that are the source of economic migration and building a common asylum procedure are goals to which the EU has committed itself, and they are at least a part of the recipe for success if they are followed through upon.

As Europe becomes increasingly besieged by huddled masses, its legal sensitivities may eventually change to reflect an age very different to that in which the Geneva Conventions were written. In the meantime, if it is to avoid the loss of moral standing suffered by the US through the creation of a legal double standard in Guantanamo Bay, Europe must face a humanitarian crisis without losing its respect for international law.

Individual countries have jurisdiction only over their citizens, and that creates an inherent double standard regarding everyone else; international law alone protects the rights we have come to regard as basic within borders as well as between them. If we allow Italy to sink it on the high seas it will be only a question of time before we accept lower humanitarian standards across Europe. And the rolling back of individual rights in favour of central government always affects the quality of democracy. Any American who thought their civil rights were guaranteed by lawmakers at home must have been shocked at the number of voters willing to give them up following the 9/11 attacks.

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