On 3 October, the committee of the European Parliament in charge of migration, reunited for an meeting on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, went silent. It was a moment of mourning: exactly six years ago, a ship capsized half a nautical mile off the island of Lampedusa, killing at least 368 people. It was not to be the last time people would die trying to reach Europe in hope of a safer life. Between 2015 and 2018, more than 14,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. While migrants’ crossings have sharply dropped – the result of European collaboration with Southern Mediterranean countries (particularly Libya) on “migration management” – the death rate has soared dramatically. So far, at least 1,000 people have lost their lives in 2019.
The shameful political game conducted by EU countries, motivated by the short-term goal of ensuring no rescue ships dock in their ports, has led to countless standoffs at sea. Vulnerable migrants, including children and pregnant women, several of whom, having endured inhumane conditions in Libya, ended up stranded in the middle of the sea for weeks. This was the case for the 40 passengers of the Sea Watch 3 experienced in June this year. The captain of this ship, Carola Rackete, provided a vivid account of her ordeal to the European Parliament.
Not only was she forced to enter Lampedusa without authorisation – after a 17-day standoff with the Italian government, which refused her requests to dock in spite of the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the boat. But when she finally docked, instead of being warmly welcomed, she was arrested by police on charges of “resistance and violence against war ships.” Public opinion on the other hand recognised she had simply taken a brave decision to save lives.
As EU migration Commissioner Avramopoulos rightly put it when referring to search and rescue ship standoffs at sea: “This has not been Europe's finest hour.”
After hitting rock bottom, the political situation may have finally begun to turn. On 23 September, France, Germany, Italy and Malta reached a temporary agreement on disembarkation, with the aim of ensuring prompt disembarkation and relocation of asylum seekers rescued in the central Mediterranean sea within four weeks. These member states are hoping to win other states’ buy-in at the next Justice and Home Affairs EU Council, scheduled for 8 October. While the agreement’s practical implementation still needs to be agreed upon, Caritas Europa welcomes this first step towards more solidarity - and responsibility - sharing among member states. We hope that many states will join this new mechanism, thus showing that providing shelter and protection to people in immediate need has prevailed over petty political interests and games.
The devil is in the details
However, the agreement is far from perfect. Some of its elements risk legitimising harmful practices or enabling human rights violations. For example, the agreement does not clearly specify what constitutes a safe place of docking and legitimises the “rescue operations” carried out by the Libyan coast guards, which have led to several human rights violations and even death. It is paramount that, under this new mechanism, rescue vessels are allowed to dock at the closest safe place. Under no condition should they be returned or directed to Libya, which currently cannot be considered a safe country, as UN agencies have repeatedly argued. Migrant reception is another thorny issue that is not addressed in a satisfactory manner. Upon disembarkation, migrants should have access to dignified reception conditions and to a fair and efficient asylum process. They should not be arbitrarily detained. Return procedures must also comply with international standards regarding safeguards and procedural guarantees.
From the perspective of civil society, the current and future agreements on disembarkation should also recognise the humanitarian role of Search and Rescue operations carried out by NGOs in the Mediterranean. As Home Affairs Commissioner candidate, Ylva Johansson clearly stated during her hearing at the European Parliament, saving lives and facilitating disembarkation are not pull factors for irregular migration, and humanitarian assistance of those in need should never be criminalised.
More structural and durable solution needed
It is clear that this new agreement is a welcome step. However, further efforts are necessary to achieve sustainable solidarity - and responsibility-sharing on Search and Rescue operations and asylum across Europe. The flawed Dublin Regulation, establishing that an asylum application must be processed in the first country of entry of an asylum seeker, has put disproportionate pressure on EU border countries like Greece and Italy. For this reason, it should be radically reformed. During this new EU political cycle, we call on EU member states to agree on a new version of the Dublin Regulation that integrates a permanent relocation mechanism. Such a system needs to be fair and to work for both asylum seekers and EU countries. In addition, states should uphold their obligation to save lives and establish rescue operations at sea. As called for by the European Parliament, EU legislation on smuggling must also be clarified to ensure that humanitarian assistance is never criminalised.
Together with many politicians, civil society organisations, volunteers, and citizens, including Sea Watch 3 captain Carola Rackete, Caritas Europa gathered in front of the European Parliament on 3 October to ask for a more humane European migration policy; a policy that does not criminalise migrants and offers solidarity instead. Let us hope that another narrative on migration is, at last, within arm’s reach.
- Maria Nyman is Secretary General of Caritas Europa, the network of 49 national member organisations in 46 European countries and one of the seven regions of Caritas Internationalis. Caritas assists and provide services to millions of people in need across the world.
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