Border control: the unanswered calls

We are systematically discouraging the development of a humanitarian regime at sea, accepting death rather than uncontrolled immigration. Saving 'boat people' comes at a cost few are willing to take, says Nina Perkowski
Nina Perkowski
9 September 2011

Tineke Strik is in Italy this week talking to 'boat people' who have survived boat crossings from Northern Africa to Europe and have witnessed many people die. She will hear their stories of unanswered calls for help, boats passing by, and fellow passengers slowly dying. She will speak to border guards, NGO representatives, and UNHCR staff. Acting as Rapporteur for the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population, Strik has two days in Italy to begin understanding just what is happening in the Mediterranean, where impartial observers are lacking, and where a tragedy has unfolded in recent times. Her visit is in response to the increasing number of news stories about refugees and migrants drowning, disappearing and dying in the Mediterranean, and to the well-publicised testimonies of survivors who assert that their calls for help went unanswered.

Fortunately, these stories make it into mainstream news outlets. Unfortunately, their content is not new, nor does it seem as though they will lead to significant changes in the foreseeable future. Nearly 2000 people have died since the beginning of this year – and while this is an increase from the same time period in previous years, many thousands have perished in the last 20 years.

The growing number of deaths, and the increasing news coverage, have sparked important public discussions regarding the EU’s ability and responsibility to halt the dying. When seeking to contribute to this debate, a number of questions emerge that demand answers. Why are boat people in need of help being ignored when international maritime law requires the coming of help to people in distress at sea? Fortress Europe reports that more than 1,674 migrants have died this year in the Sicilian Channel alone – which is, coincidentally, the area in which the European border management agency Frontex is active with operation HERMES 2011, patrolling the sea with vessels and aircraft. In theory, this area should be fairly well controlled, as HERMES aims at ‘detecting and preventing illegitimate border crossings to the Pelagic Islands, Sicily and the Italian mainland’ and has been backed by enormous financial means, costing €2.6 million in the first 40 days only. Have the Frontex patrols in the area encouraged, or discouraged, the saving of migrants in distress at sea? The question must be answered.

The reluctance of some seamen to save boat people is understandable when one takes a closer look at those cases where captains have decided to fulfil their obligations and help. When in 2004, the Cap Anamur saved 37 migrants in the Mediterranean, they were refused permission to disembark for almost two weeks – and when they finally took the decision to disembark because of the humanitarian situation onboard, they were arrested and tried for people smuggling. In the end they were acquitted, but the two-week waiting period on the high seas, and a subsequent three-year-long trial, certainly sent a strong signal to other seamen: do not save boat people. In 2007, Tunisian fishermen saved 44 migrants from drowning – they received a 2.5-years prison sentence for ‘resistance to state authority’, ruining their lives economically. In July of this year, a Spanish NATO frigate was refused permission to disembark by Malta and Italy. After days of arguing, the boat people were transferred to a Tunisian navy boat and brought to Tunisia – a country which has recently received hundreds of thousands of refugees from Libya and struggles to uphold standards of international human rights and refugee law. In August, Malta refused permission to disembark to an Italian coastguard ship, which had rescued more than 300 migrants. The image that emerges is rather clear. Seamen see and know: if they save boat people, they will at least have difficulties disembarking, and at worst face a long trial with an uncertain outcome. In commercial trading, every delay costs huge amounts of money. Saving boat people thus comes at a cost few are willing to take.

When answering the question of why calls for help are not heeded, a simple answer seems to emerge. These people are left to die because we do not want them here in the European Union. We use helicopters, thermal cameras, boats and ground troops, endless haggling about disembarkation, lawsuits and soon, almost insurmountable barriers along borders less lethal than the Mediterranean – namely the Greek-Turkish land border – to keep them out. We systematically discourage the development of a humanitarian regime at sea, accepting death rather than uncontrolled immigration.

Why are we so determined to keep these people out? Legally speaking, there is a clear argument for a humane system. Whoever enters EU territory is entitled to full protection of their human rights, and to a fair assessment of their claims to asylum, should they make any. Moreover, people can only be returned if third countries can be persuaded to take them in – having people enter EU territory who are undesired and potentially liable to deportation costs money. Another frequently made argument is that of deterrence. First of all, as the German Minister of the Interior phrased it, ‘we cannot solve the problems of the entire world.’ We allegedly cannot take everybody in who would like to come to the EU. If we were to make the passage to Europe much safer by saving all people found in distress at sea, we might encourage more people to migrate. More people whose claims to asylum and other forms of protection we would have to assess, and whom we would then decide whether to deport, or permit to stay. The problem, however, is that deterrence through border control has not worked thus far. Rather than stopping people from making the crossing to the EU altogether, it has driven them to change to more remote, more dangerous routes – making them more dependent on support from smugglers, and steadily increasing the number of deaths.

Politicians claim that this is an unforeseen ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ taking place in the Mediterranean and that nothing can be done about. But it is a consequence and a by-product of the policies of control and closure the EU has invested in for the last 10 years and more. It is in the interest of all EU citizens wanting to protect their territories from those ‘others’, who will continue being pushed to leave their homes by persecution, poverty and extreme violence, and will keep being attracted to the European Union due to its wealth, safety and stability. Gross socio-economic inequalities in today’s world make migratory pressure inevitable. If we want to stop people from entering our safe haven, there is no alternative but the use of force, be it military force in form of border guards and patrols, or the brute force of the high seas, which we watch claiming hundreds of victims year after year.

Is it morally defensible to enforce territorial control at all costs, including the loss of many human lives? When we consider whom we are so keen to exclude, this question becomes acute. We hear in the news about people arriving, people drowning, people disappearing. Rarely if ever do we learn about their full stories or even their nationalities. Apart from the recent influx of Tunisians who left their country at a time of political upheaval, most of those irregularly entering the EU in the first three months of 2011 were from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is difficult to deny that European governments have at least had a role in influencing situations in these countries. Now, there are increasingly reports about black Africans being targeted in Libya, and there are expectations that many of them might try to flee persecution, heading toward Europe. Again, the NATO mission in Libya suggests at least a partial European responsibility for these people’s right to live, and their right to protection from persecution.

The EU’s approach to minimising deaths, and maximising territorial control, is the increasing externalisation of border control. Already, there are reports that the Libyan ‘rebels’ will honour the Italian-Libyan friendship treaty, which significantly reduced the EU’s refugee ‘burden’ in recent years by getting Libyan forces to stop migrants from leaving Libya. By increasingly pressuring third country governments to stop people before they even leave, unpleasant news of migrant deaths can be avoided. Which does not mean, however, that they do not occur. Not only do such approaches clearly constitute a violation of the human right to leave any country, including one’s own, but also, it needs to be remembered that while cooperating with Gaddafi migrants who were prevented from departing, or who were returned to Libya were arrested, abused, and often imprisoned in secret detention centres in appalling conditions. There were numerous reports of migrants being brought into the desert and abandoned there without food or water – left to die. While the amount of boat people arriving in Italy significantly decreased since the friendship treaty entered into force, it came at the cost of accepting their abuse, torture, and death elsewhere.

Ultimately, when deciding how to deal with the current crisis on the Mediterranean, we need to decide what kind of a Union we want to be. Do we want to build ever-higher walls or ever-deeper ditches, controlled by armed guards willing to use force against those born on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence, and accept their deaths and suffering? Or are we willing to invest a little less in militarised border control, and a little more in fair asylum procedures, dignified returns where compatible with human rights, and search and rescue missions on the Mediterranean instead? Already, we are spending roughly €90 million a year for Frontex alone – in addition to each state’s national border guards. Tineke Strik will see the significantly higher cost of our current border defence strategy during her visit in Italy. Let us hope her report falls on sympathetic ears.


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