“The risk of illegal border-crossing across the Central Mediterranean area was assessed as amongst the highest, due to the continued volatile situation in countries of departure in North Africa.”
That’s how the latest annual report by Frontex — the European Union’s border agency — assessed the risk of attempting to enter the European Union by sailing from North Africa to Italian territories.
But when Frontex talked about “risk”, it did not mean the risk to migrants themselves. It meant the “risk” to the security of the borders of the European Union.
The recent deaths of over 300 people, when a boat carrying refugees from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa capsized, has highlighted not only the desperate conditions from which the refugees were fleeing but also the ‘reception’ which awaits them in the European Union.
Libya is now the main point of departure on the North African coast for refugees fleeing to EU countries. This is a result of the collapse of central state authority as competing factions vie for control of the country, or at least for control of their own patch of territory.
(One of Qaddafi’s complaints about the unfairness of Western support for the rebels who eventually overthrew him was that he had effectively eliminated the use of Libyan ports as departure points for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to EU countries.)
In the first nine of months of this year the main nationalities of refugees who set sail from Libya in an attempt to reach Italian territories — the island of Lampedusa is closer to North Africa than it is to the Italian mainland — were Somali (3,000), Eritrean (7,500) and Syrian (7,500).
According to Italian authorities and refugee agencies, this was also the composition of passengers on the ship which sank on 2 October.
Despite the risks of the Central Mediterranean crossing — since 1988 over 19,000 people are estimated to have died attempting it — it is easy to understand the desperate circumstances which drives people to run such a risk.
According to the latest Human Rights Watch report on Somalia:
“Somalia’s long-running armed conflict continued to leave civilians dead, wounded and displaced in large numbers.”
“Both the Islamist armed group al-Shabaab and the government-affiliated forces committed abuses, including indiscriminate attacks harming civilians and arbitrary arrests and detentions.”
“Targeted killings of civilians, notably journalists, increased in areas controlled by the Somali authorities. Al-Shabaab committed serious abuses, such as targeted killings, beheadings and executions, and forcibly recruited adults and children.”
The organisation’s report on Eritrea makes for similar reading:
“Torture, arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and religious freedom remain routine in Eritrea. Elections have not been held since Eritrea gained independence in 1993. Political parties are not allowed.”
“The constitution has never been implemented, and political parties are not allowed. Forced labour and indefinite military service prompt thousands of Eritreans to flee the country every year.”
In Syria more than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011, all parties to the conflict have committed atrocities and war crimes to one degree or another, over five million Syrians are internally displaced, and over two million have fled the country.
When Somalis, Eritreans, and Syrians flee to neighbouring countries, Western politicians and media unhesitatingly describe them as refugees in need of support.
But if they get to the European Union, they become economic migrants, a problem that needs to be controlled, preferably by preventing them from even reaching the shores of the European Union in the first place.
In August of this year, for example, a boatload of refugees which had set sail from Libya was stranded off the coast of Malta while the Maltese and Italian authorities argued about whose responsibility they were. Eventually, the Italian authorities backed down.
But in March of 2011 authorities refused to come to the assistance of a boat which had been spotted drifting in the Mediterranean.
It was carrying over 70 refugees from the fighting in Libya. 61 passengers died as the boat drifted back to Libya, where the survivors were promptly arrested and detained by Gaddafi’s forces.
To the west, a similar approach has been adopted by other EU states: Spain has constructed six-meter-high walls around the towns of Ceuta and Melilla, located on Moroccan soil but Spanish territory in terms of international law. Refugees attempting to scale the walls have been killed by the use of live ammunition.
To the east, it is the same story: Despite being in the grip of an economic crisis, Greece spent €5.5 million last year on building a 12.6 kilometres-long fence, topped with razor-wire, along its border with Turkey. The government claimed that the fence had “practical and symbolic value.”
Refugees who manage to overcome such hurdles and reach EU territory face, at best, a bureaucratic, inefficient, unjust and slow-moving system for processing their asylum claims. Barred from working and denied adequate accommodation, their everyday experiences are ones of physical and emotional hardship.
Local authorities in Switzerland have introduced what amounts to a system of apartheid under which asylum-seekers are banned from libraries, swimming pools, playing fields and the vicinity of schools. Curfews have also been imposed on asylum-seekers, banning them from going out after 5pm.
Conditions for asylum-seekers in Greece — which arrested 8,000 Syrian asylum-seekers in 2012 but granted asylum to just two of them — are so bad that some European countries have a policy of not returning asylum-seekers there as it would be a breach of their human rights to do so.
In Italy most asylum-seekers end up living on the streets or in abandoned railway yards and condemned houses after the temporary accommodation they receive from the authorities, which may be nothing more than a tent, comes to an end.
And even survivors from the capsizing earlier this month were provided with nothing better than accommodation in the “migrant holding centre” on Lampedusa, where entire families found themselves living in the open in the rain for three days in a row.
While EU governments implement policies designed to deter asylum-seekers from coming to the territory of the EU in general and to their country in particular, they simultaneously all claim that they are taking more than their “fair share” of asylum-seekers.
Italy claims it is overloaded because it is the initial country of entry into the EU for many asylum-seekers. Germany claims it is overloaded because of the total number of applications it receives. Switzerland claims it is overloaded because of the ratio of asylum-seekers to the total population.
Greece claims it is overloaded in the light of its financial crisis. Austria claims it is overloaded because of its small size. And the UK claims it is overloaded because the rest of the EU allow ‘their’ failed asylum-seekers to travel on to the UK.
Despite the growing death toll in the Mediterranean, EU governments are intent on continuing as before. They condemn the death toll as a tragedy. But they maintain the policies which produced that tragedy.
At both a national and an EU level, their policies are not about opening their borders to refugees but about continuing to focus on steps which would confine refugees to countries which immediately neighbour the country from which they have fled.