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People Before Borders

ROME, Jul 29 2014 (IPS) - With Italy having taken over presidency of the European Union (EU) until December 2014, questions remain regarding Europe’s migration policies as reports of migrants dying at sea while trying to reach Italy regularly make the headlines.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that since the beginning of 2014, 500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea and almost 43,000 have been rescued by the Italian Navy.

However, Italy’s “Mare Nostrum operation has gone a long way towards addressing the issue of saving people’s lives,” says Anneliese Baldaccini, Amnesty International’s Senior Executive Officer for Asylum and Migration.

Mare Nostrum – the Italian search-and-rescue operation – was launched following the tragedy of October 2013, when 366 migrants died as the boat in which they were travelling sank off the coast of Lampedusa, an Italian island which is closer to Tunisia than Italy.

“The EU needs to do more to create legal channels for asylum seekers and migrants” … at the moment, "the EU is focused almost exclusively on strengthening its borders” – Gregory Maniatis, advisor to the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration

Italy is the lone sponsor of the search-and-rescue initiative, investing an estimated nine million euros every month.

In an interview with IPS, Baldaccini highlighted the unsustainability of this operation, arguing that this is why “Amnesty is calling on the European Union to act in a concerted way to support Italy in these operations”. So far, she continued, “the EU has proved reluctant in doing so.”

“With its Mare Nostrum operation, Italy has been pushing for a collective humanitarian response,” said Gregory Maniatis, Senior Policy Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and advisor to Peter Sutherland, U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. “But what is missing at the EU level is a common vision of the problem,” he told IPS.

“The EU needs to do more to create legal channels for asylum seekers and migrants,” Maniatis explained. At the moment, “the EU is focused almost exclusively on strengthening its borders.”

Maniatis also argued that the EU does not have a sustained focus “to improve asylum processing to create a truly common European system, to increase its capacity to receive refugees, and to establish ways for people to apply for asylum without undertaking the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.”

According to Amnesty International, there is a dichotomy between the “EU’s aspiration to promote human rights and the reality of human rights violations in member states.” In its recommendations to the Italian EU presidency, Amnesty International stated that currently, “border control measures expose migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers to serious harm.

Their detention is systemic, rather than exceptional. And their lack of agency makes them vulnerable to abject exploitation and abuse.”

Amnesty International has calledon Italy, in view of its presidency of the European Union, “to show leadership and steer the Union in the direction of human rights, putting people before politics”.

The European Council Summit held on June 26-27 agreed broad guidelines for Europe’s migration and asylum strategy but these “do not change the current status quo” according to Amnesty’s migration expert Baldaccini. They “even represent a setback,” she told IPS. Overall, said Baldaccini, they “show a lack of political commitment.”

She went on to explain that the Secretariat of the European Council has partly blamed the recent rise of far-right parties at the last European Parliament elections as being the reason why no progress was made in terms of migration policies.

In general, states – and not only far-right parties – are reluctant to “mention human rights as it could be perceived as encouraging more arrivals to Europe,” Baldaccini said.

Many organisations have called on the European Union to change its approach to migration policies. The Lampedusa tragedy is only one example of a long series of similar events, said Elena Crespi, Western Europe Programme Officer at the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), an NGO representing 178 organisations throughout the world.

“Despite repeated commitments to change,” Crespi told IPS, “EU migration policies remain security driven, and aim at reinforcing border control while migrants’ rights are given little attention.”

One such example, she argued, is the increasing presence of FRONTEX, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union.

Crespi explained that the intensification of FRONTEX operations has not resulted in fewer incidents, nor better respect for migrants’ and asylum-seekers’ rights. On the contrary, an increased number of allegations have been made regarding human rights violations at the Union’s external borders, which remain unaddressed.

FRONTEX has turned down the recommendation by the E.U. Ombudsman to put in place a mechanism to allow alleged violations to be investigated.

This, said Crespi, raises questions regarding the compatibility of FRONTEX’s operations in terms of human rights.

The presence of the European Border Agency is not sufficient to prevent people from dying at sea, she noted. Instead, enhanced border control pushes more and more people into taking increasingly dangerous routes into Europe, thus putting their lives at risk.

Italy is now pushing for FRONTEX to assume the costs of the Mare Nostrum operations, explained Simona Moscarelli, a legal expert for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Rome. But to do this, the “FRONTEX mission will have to be revised because its mandate does not include search-and-rescue operations.”

“FRONTEX’s role is not to save lives but rather to prevent and deter migrants from coming into Europe,” Crespi told IPS.

Moreover, “the vast majority of migrants travelling across the Mediterranean Sea are Syrian and Eritrean nationals and should be entitled to asylum,” Moscarelli told IPS.

According to the UNHCR, the number of Syrians reaching Europe by sea increased in 2013. Last year, Italy rescued an estimated 11,307 Syrians in the Mediterranean.

“The European Union must overhaul its approach to migration, and put respect for migrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights at its centre. Opening new channels for regular migration, enhancing reception capacity including by increasing responsibility sharing for migrants coming into Europe and investigating human rights violations are some steps that could be taken in the right direction,” said Crespi.

 
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