Refugee boat in the Mediterannean Sea. Edited by Shabbir Lakha, Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay Refugee boat in the Mediterannean Sea. Edited by Shabbir Lakha, Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay

Europe’s failure to deal with the refugee crisis is resulting in more deaths in the Mediterranean and the growth of the far right argues Eleftheria Kousta

Last month Italy made headlines for refusing to accept a refugee boat carrying 629 people on board, of whom 100 were minors and seven were pregnant women. Italy’s right-wing administration has given way to regressive elements from the far right and has put at the top of the agenda the establishment of a more restrictive asylum policy and tougher border security. This is not unique to Italy, as a number of countries around Europe have sought to pursue the same policies and turn to far-right populism in order to do so.

‘Fortress Europe’ is further enhanced by EU initiatives as the number of lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea continues to rise in the tens of thousands. The EU has strengthened its external border security with less-than-stellar means. Frontex has been accused several times of using aggressive policies to try and avert boats from landing on European shores. The EU-Turkey and EU-Libya bilateral agreements, while they might seem to be effective in halting flows, have done so at the cost of the security and well-being of refugees and migrants. This has also caused issues with search and rescue missions as countries try to evade responsibility by claiming that boats in distress are not under their jurisdiction – in early June, an incident like this caused the death of at least 80 people.

Since 2011, the flows of people fleeing war and persecution have intensified. Also, the civil war in Libya has left a political vacuum that encourages migration from sub-Saharan regions. Yet, despite the unprecedented levels of movement at such a scale (justly described as a crisis), Europe has a two-decades-long history of being ineffective at handling the situation.

First of all, bilateralism on agreements in handling human flows has been disastrous. Since the 90s, with the fall of communism in Albania, Europe has experienced increased irregular migration that resulted in Albanian migrants being put in camps in Bari, aggressive deportations only for migrants to re-attempt to cross the border time and time again and, most importantly, loss of life.

In 1997, Italy signed an agreement with Albania to allow the Italian border patrol to board any vessel suspected of carrying undocumented migrants. In March 1997, outside the straits of Otranto, in an attempt to stop a vessel from reaching the shore, the coastguard ship collided with a vessel coming from Albania causing the death of 180 Albanian migrants, the youngest of whom was only three months old. This action caused civil society to question unilateralism in migration and entry policies.

The EU claims to enhance multilateralism by employing FRONTEX (a cross-governmental border patrol agency) and through striking agreements with Turkey and Libya, two of the major transitory countries on the refugee route. However, this is bilateralism under the guise of regional cooperation, few international organizations are employed and few agreements are made based on international law.

In more recent years, refugees and migrants are predominantly from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Bangladesh, Sudan, Eritrea etc. The EU considers places like Afghanistan ‘safe’ countries, which has meant deportations have intensified and refugees are increasingly affected by the Dublin Convention which has left them stranded in the poorest EU states in the south.

Etymology has also cost non-Syrians a great deal, as they aren’t covered by temporary protections specifically for Syrian refugees and are more likely to fall under the spectrum of irregular/economic migrant and therefore denied their rights or sidelined during the application process. Southern EU countries are also usually the least well equipped to handle such crises and amid waning EU funding they heavily rely on the work of NGOs. Also, accepting refugees under these conditions is almost never trouble-free, as the riots in the Moria camp in Lesvos demonstrated.

Refugees are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, especially if they are minors. In places like Athens sexual exploitation is rampant and in camps scattered around the rural areas of Greece, refugees labouring for locals are usually recruited at petty pay rates that would violate the working conventions even in a place like Greece, where labour laws are already loose.

Corruption is also taking a toll as local authorities that have to deal with the camp management are rarely trained on refugee issues and are not appointed on merit by the local councils. Trafficking is also a big issue which has boosted in the wake of governments focusing on tighter border control as opposed to protecting vulnerable people. Apart from the obvious physical dangers, a lot of migrants fail to register with the local authorities and UNHCR as asylum seekers and thus fall under the status of ‘illegal’ migrants. Due to lack of coordination between authorities and comprehensive information dissemination, these migrants are then unable to kickstart their resettlement process.

Compared to the US and the Gulf States, Europe has indeed accepted more refugees – but that’s due to the fact that the crisis is right at their doorstep and other receiving countries in the Middle East have terrible human rights records or they are simply unable to sustain all this movement eg. Palestinian refugees have remained in camps in Jordan and Lebanon for decades. Lebanon itself hosts the biggest number of refugees in the world in relation to its population, where a third of its total population are refugees.

Authoritarian governments in the region have also been infamous for their treatment of refugees. Despite EU funding, Turkey still turns a blind eye to traffickers and, via their military campaigns against the Kurds in Turkey and northern Syria, are responsible for causing more displacement. In Libya, slave trade is openly taking place and in the less ‘popular’ route through the Sahara and into Algeria, the local authorities have been deporting thousands into death marches through the desert.

However, attitudes by governments in the EU have been extremely regressive. With Orban’s ascension to power in Hungary, it is now virtually illegal to help refugees and other transition countries in the migration route have shut their borders. This is partly due to EU pressures on these countries to stem the flows of people making it to the Northern and Western countries.

Discussions for the introduction of quotas fell short as issues arose with distribution and willingness of governments to resettle them in their states. To some extent the whole crisis has become the centrepiece of a new wave of far-right extremism and brought it into the political mainstream scene. Angela Merkel, who was initially pushed into accepting refugees in Germany, quickly changed her rhetoric amid elections, since popular opinion was increasingly siding with far-right, anti-immigrant sentiments.

The regress to the right is clearly reflected by the recent stunt of the Italian far right interior minister and the increasing support for ‘Fortress Europe’ by neoliberal politicians like Macron and Theresa May, who continue to put refugees under strain with their policies. Yet, incidents of violence and loss of life remind us that when far right ideologies enter mainstream politics and affect policy-making, lives are in danger.

What EU states don’t ‘get’ is that compelling factors that cause a lot of this mobility are not going to stop any time soon – judging by the geopolitical landscape. Instead of arbitrary bilateral agreements with non-democratic states, they should aim for wider cooperation with international bodies in order to efficiently resettle refugees, instead of forcing them into camps in Southern Europe.

Moreover, UNHCR who have been limited in what they can do in Greece should be able to provide refugees with accurate information and petition for legalisation programmes in order to track down unregistered refugees.

The EU should redirect resources from external border patrol and consciously letting refugees drown in the Mediterranean to facilitating resettlement and establishing an efficient and humane bureaucracy for the asylum process.