Thursday, 27 September 2018

Proposal for rapid screenings of refugees at sea draws fire

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Europe’s increasingly hardline refugee policy is raising concerns about the transparency of search and rescue in the Mediterranean, now that all vessels operated by aid organisations have been put out of action.

Panamanian authorities informed Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Sunday that they would revoke the registration of its vessel, the Aquarius, even as it plied the waters with 58 rescued asylum-seekers on board. It was the last non-state search and rescue vessel in operation.

“We’re looking for whatever flag will allow the ship to do its job… We’re in this process [of applying] to all [EU] member states,” Apostolos Veizis, head of MSF programmes in Greece, told Al Jazeera.

“Europe’s policy now is quite clearly pushbacks, border closure and detention,” he added. MSF has publicly blamed Italy for pressing the Panamanian government to revoke the Aquarius’ flag.

The far-right Italian government, which took office on June 1, has impounded private search and rescue vessels, accusing the organisations that operate them of collusion with smugglers.

And now that state-controlled coast guard vessels control search and rescue in the Mediterranean, Italy is urging the rest of the European Union to give them greater discretionary powers to process asylum-seekers offshore.

Earlier this month, the Italian and Austrian interior ministers floated a plan to conduct rapid screenings at sea.

“For those who manage to make it into a European state’s territorial waters and are then picked up by a ship, we should use the ships to carry out the appropriate checks on whether they deserve protection,” said Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, estimating that the process should take “a few days”.

He did not clarify how rejected applicants would be disposed of.

Human rights and aid organisations tell Al Jazeera they have their doubts about the legal and moral rectitude of such a procedure.

“I think the main goal is to close the Mediterranean front. The Libya-Italy route is where this mainly applies, and it would legalise the return to Libya of a large number of people,” says Vasilis Papastergiou, deputy head of the Hellenic League for Human Rights, Greece’s top human rights watchdog. “This may greatly reduce the number of asylum applicants. But is that the goal? If so, one can simply close the border or do pushbacks… It’s a form of effectiveness that violates international agreements.”

Pushbacks are forced returns of potential asylum-seekers to countries where they may face violence or persecution, and are illegal under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, the main international pact governing refugee rights.

Beyond the legal and ethical issues, many express doubts about the practicalities of processing traumatized asylum-seekers on board a packed vessel. 

“I think you need to be prepared to ask… whether or not people being held in potentially difficult conditions on board can give an accurate and clear picture of why they are fleeing violence and why they need protection,” says Susan Fratzke from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, “whether or not they would receive a fair hearing given their own mental state and given the conditions they are in.”

“A ship is not a place to process a proper asylum claim. To hold refugees in detention is also not allowed,” says Axel Steier, head of the aid group Mission Lifeline. Its eponymous ship was impounded by Maltese authorities last July, after Italian authorities refused to let it dock and opened a judicial investigation into the group. Al Jazeera witnessed the ship’s entry into Valetta after it had spent six days at sea with 233 asylum-seekers on board, its decks thronged with men, women and children.

Italy’s populist government has not only been instrumental in quashing private search and rescue (see chart 1); it has even prevented its own coastguard vessels from bringing asylum-seekers on land. On August 20, Italian coastguard ship Diciotti was allowed to enter Catania harbour after six days at sea, but 177 refugees, including 34 children, were not allowed to disembark until other EU countries pledged to take them.

“The proposal is chilling… It is ludicrous to suggest in this situation of mass influx that any asylum application, for eligibility or admissibility, can be determined ‘in a few days’,” says Ariel Ricker, who founded Advocates Abroad, a legal aid NGO with 250 lawyers active in Greece and the Middle East. “Should this proposal become reality, then these officials may find that this ‘ship of refugees’ will be flanked by ships of lawyers, dedicated to refugee protection and exposure of ongoing illegality. Advocates Abroad attorneys will certainly be present.”

Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas declined to comment for this story, but in an interview for the Greek newspaper Epohi, he drew a distinction between “well-meant” and “ill-meant” proposals within the EU.

A senior Greek government source who wished to remain anonymous called the Austro-Italian proposal an “illegal stopgap that runs against human rights and the Geneva Convention, and is practically extremely difficult.”

A history of bizarre proposals

Unorthodox proposals for dealing with the refugee crisis are nothing new to Europe. Meetings of interior ministers and government leaders at the height of the crisis in 2015 produced bizarre proposals that revealed the level of panic in the room.

At that time, Greece was the main conduit for refugees crossing the Aegean from Asia. Former Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas recently revealed to Al Jazeera that he was accused of failing to protect Greece’s– and Europe’s– external maritime borders, despite the fact that member states weren’t at that time responding to the Hellenic Coast Guard’s requests for additional patrol boats and thermal cameras.

“One delegate suggested, ‘Why don’t you just sink the [refugee] boats?’ prompting the outburst, ‘I can’t f***ing believe it!’ from EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, before she stormed out of the room,” Mouzalas told Al Jazeera.

Mouzalas loaded two dozen ambassadors from EU countries onto a coastguard vessel and sped them to the international waterline between Greek and Turkish coasts. “This is the maritime border,” he told them. “Tell me how to defend it.”

On two occasions, Mouzalas travelled to the Netherlands to inspect floating platforms that would, if deployed, house hundreds of refugees and the authorities that would process their asylum claims. Greece never used these platforms, but the idea was still being discussed earlier this year, Greek government sources tell Al Jazeera.

At the December 2015 EU summit, Greece was asked to build a concentration camp for 50,000 refugees – a proposal it parried with a suggestion that the EU subsidise refugee rentals in Greece’s ample vacant real estate.

A year later, Czech President Milos Zeman thought that Greece should populate its thousands of rocky islets with refugees, a fate Greece has only ever imposed on political exiles during the Cold War. 

The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman even suggested that the EU outsource its refugee problem entirely to Greece, in return for substantial debt relief.

Rising fatalities

As these political battles play out in Europe, the fatality rate in Mediterranean crossings is rising, even as the number of attempted crossings falls.

The EU-Turkey statement in 2016 and a bilateral agreement whereby Italy provided coast guard ships and training to Libya last year, have reduced refugee flows to Europe by 96 percent compared to 2015. Over the same period fatalities have steadily mounted from 0.37 percent of people crossing three years ago, to 2.2 percent so far this year (see chart 2). 

The pattern seems clear: the more Europe discourages asylum-seekers, the more desperate the attempts of those who continue to try. A UNHCR report this month called the Mediterranean “one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings”.

A separate Oxford University report earlier this month took a broadside at European policymakers, saying recent migration policies “seek to limit irregular migration regardless of the moral, legal and humanitarian consequences.”

Aid organisations, including MSF and Lifeline, believe that giving national coast guards a monopoly on search and rescue will deprive real asylum-seekers of protection and make bad decisions unreviewable. “What we’re doing now is saying, ‘we follow procedures, we are for the rule of law, we are for human rights’,” says the MSF’s Veizis, “but in reality these things are defunct.”

Chart 1

Chronology: How Italy discontinued private SAR

24 April                   Carmelo Zuccaro, chief prosecutor of Catania, tells La Stampa he has evidence that NGOs are working with smugglers to bring refugees to Italy.

1 June                                        League and Five Star Movement swear in govt in Rome. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini immediately travels to Pozzallo, Sicily and declares that the island has become a refugee camp for Europe, vows to send half a million undocumented migrants home.

12 June                   Spain allows 629 asylum seekers to be transferred from Aquarius to other boats and be received in Valencia, after Aquarius is refused in Malta and Italy for days, and its crew says the 3-5 day journey to Spain would be too dangerous.

27 June                   MV Lifeline with 233 refugees berths in Malta after being refused for six days in Italy and Spain. Macron implies private SAR helps smugglers. It is one of two boats with refugees at the same time. A Danish cargo ship rescues 113.

29 June                   European Council agrees to set up disembarkation platforms outside EU, closed centres in EU, and strengthen Italy’s bilateral agreement with Libya by supplying LCG with resources

4 July                                          Boat operated by NGO Proactiva Open Arms docks in Barcelona with 60 migrants after being refused in Malta and Italy for four days.

17 July                                       Italian PM Giuseppe Conte writes to Tusk and Juncker asking them to set up a permanent mediation mechanism to share burden of asylum seekers rescued in the Mediterranean. Reported in Bloomberg.

30 July                                       Italian prosecutors in Trapani, Sicily, opened investigation into alleged smuggling activities by 20 German workers on SAR ships.

15 August                                Aquarius rescue ship allowed to dock in Malta with 141 asylum-seekers after 5 days at sea, after pledges are made by France, Germany, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain to share caseload.

20 August                                Italian CG ship Diciotti allowed to enter Catania harbour on Monday night after six days at sea, but 177 refugees including 34 children were not allowed to disembark until other EU countries pledged to take them.

10 September                       MSF reports more than 100 drowned after their dinghy sank off Malta.

14 September                       Salvini, Herbert Kickl, interior ministers of Italy, Austria, hold press conference suggesting rapid screening of refugees at sea.

Chart 2

Recorded Mediterranean Deaths

Year / Fatalities / Annual tally of Sea Arrivals / Percentage of fatalities

2015      3,771 / 1,015,078 / 0.37pc

2016      5,096 / 362,753 / 1.4pc

2017      3,119 / 172,301 / 1.8pc

2018      1,719 / 78,281 / 2.2pc

In 2015, with over a million refugees arriving in Europe, fatalities amounted to 3,771, or 0.37 percent. Fatalities rose the following year despite a two-thirds drop in arrivals, representing 1.4 percent. Last year arrivals fell by half again, but fatalities rose to 1.8 percent. This year fatalities have risen to 2.2 percent.


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