2013 – Disaster without end! Human rights were only a marginal issue.

Süddeutsche.de – In October, Europe was shaken when nearly 400 people drowned off Lampedusa. A change in refugee policy seemed the only right response. Since then, a lot has happened. However, human rights were only a marginal issue.

By Alex Rühle – During the night of 3 Octobre 2013, an old cutter approached the port of Lampedusa which took off the Libyan port of Misrata three days ago. There were more than 500 refugees from Somalia and Eritrea. As soon as they saw houses, a few refugees set a blanket on fire. One of the gasoline barrels tipped over, panic broke out, the ship capsized. In the days that followed, the European political elite flew on the small Mediterranean island. When the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said he will not forget all these dead all his life, 200 victims of drowning were already recovered.

A few hours later the Italian Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano exclaimed, “It must, must, must change.” The death toll has risen to 280 by that time and the military had begun to lay out the bodies in three impressive rows in the hanger of the airport. In the end, there were 339 coffins. The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström said, “This is an imageof a Union that we do not want.” She announced to deploy a task force which is supposed to develop immediate measures to prevent such disasters in the future. In short, for a moment, it sounded as if something could change fundamentally in European refugee policy.

It was a deeply shameful moment indeed. When the burning cutter capsized, it was just 800 m away from the port where the İtalian Coast Guard is. In the hours after the disaster, several ships passed the drowning refugees or turned as everybody who rushes to help a castaway will be found guilty of assisting illegal immigration. Those fishermen who dared to pull out survivors nevertheless, told correspondingly the coast guard refused to help.

Has anything actually changed?

The whole issue was also a disaster because it never has been shown Europeans quite plainly how inhuman legislation is by now with which Europe secures its borders. However, there were also several commitments from the highest vantage point that something is finally going to change. What has happened since then? How do the measures look like that the task force decided on? Has anything actually changed?

That depends on where you look at. Since then, a lot has happened at the European borders: Early December, Eurosur (European Surveillance System) for the monitoring of “problematic stream of people” according to Brussels. This system will help to localise refugees by more efficiently by using drone cameras, satellite search systems and offshore-sensors.

Furthermore, the budget for the Agent for Border Security Frontex has been increased by 30m to help Italy to better monitor its borders. Until recently, Frontex, which has the mission to keep illegal refugees away from the EU, was involved in intercepting refugees at sea and send them back to third countries. These “push-back” operations are illegal not only according to the Geneva Convention but was also condemned as a violation of human rights by the European Court of Justice in 2012.

Barbed wire for exclaves

The Spanish government decided in November to wrap its 6 m high fences around Melilla, one of the two exclaves on Moroccan soil, with barbed wire. This wire is furnished with sharp blades and barbs. Melilla had once wrapped the wire around its city limits. After several refugees bled to death, it was taken off in 2007. In the second exclave Centa, the fence was extended far out into the sea to hinder refugees from reaching Spanish territory from the beach of Morocco.

Is that it? Of course not. The head of governments of the EU expressed to be “deeply shocked” about the tragedy off Lampedusa. At a special summit, they decided to “tackle the root causes of streams of migrants by promoting with countries of origin and transit”.

This cooperation was taken up immediately: The Azerbaijani and Tunisian government signed a contract for a so-called mobility partnership. An agreement has also been made with Turkey in which the EU is committed to facilitate visa conditions for Turks. In return, Turkey takes back all refugees arriving Europe via Turkey. Brussels says that refugees could then apply for asylum.

However, the Turkish asylum system in principle only allows EU members to apply. Turkey, which is already financially and logistically overwhelmed with almost 1m Syrian refugees, becomes a trap for all real refugees. The mobility partnerships are not one whit better. The really dirty part of the refugee policy is in each case removed from Europe, external borders and transit routes are closed down, in return, foreign aid is provided.

The fact that human rights are yet highly secondary is reflected in the fact that a similar cooperation agreement within the scope of Eurosur with Libya has been arranged. The Libyan government is to be informed about refugee boats put to sail in Misrata or Tobruk. The Libyan military, then, has to retrieve the ships. Libya has never signed the Geneva Convention.

Unfulfilled promises

There, it is common practice to unload refugees somewhere in the dunes of the desert. Fabrizio Gatti was travelling through the Sahara following black Africans. There, he spotted refugee camps which remind more of a concentration camp than any detention centre that would correspond to European standards.

Speaking of European standards: after the tragedy of Lampedusa, the European media looked in at the local reception centre. This centre can accommodate 300 people who normally have to be brought to the mainland immediately. However, most of the time, more than 1000 refugees are often stuck for months in these camps and have to sleep in the open air. Here, too, Italian Minister of the Interior promised immediate improvement. That was in October.

Just before Christmas, a man filmed in this very camp how newly arrived refugees were forced to undress in the hall in front of guards and women to get disinfected. The refugee filming stated that all refugees are treated that way.

Of course, there is a legitimate interest of the EU on migration management especially the political pressure will raise in two respects: on the one hand, the number of refugees is increasing. The UNHCR just wrote that in 2013, more people are fleeing as never before. On the other hand, the European elections lie ahead.

A new approach? Negative!

A few weeks ago, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta warned that, in this election, the EU will get a nasty surprise. For the first time, more Europsceptics than Euro proponents represent the European people. Having a look at the refugee policy, the impression of right-wing populists already driving their respective governments before them, is undeniable.

How else it is explainable that other approaches in European refugee policy such as humanitarian visas, as required by the UNHCR for quite some time, are not being discussed? Refugees would not have to confide in human trackers.

Why is the Dublin II Regulation still sacrosanct? This agreement says that a refugee can only apply for asylum in the European country which he/she entered first. Why are there still no common criteria for acceptance and integration? And why does this continent not have the heart to discuss new regulations for the immigration of qualified labour despite the collective knowledge of collective aging of the population?

Principal of “Mare Nostrum”

By the way, the Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano, who demanded that in Lampedusa everything must, must, must change, announced, 5 days after his return from Rome, an upgrade of the coast guard. 5 warships, a dock landing ship, 2 petrol boats, 2 frigates as well as long-range helicopters and drones with optical and infrared cameras are supposed to immediately put off all those “who believe that they can get away with human trafficking with being punished”.

Alfano named this operation “Mare Nostrum” (our sea); how the ancient Romans used to call the Mediterranean. According to the human rights organisation “A buon diritto”, more than 20,000 refugees died off the coast of Italy between 1988 and 2013. In this respect, the name “Mare Nostrum” is spot on. It is our sea. Ours only! Woe to the stranger who enters there.

Translated by Aylin Satmaz