Is the Boat Full? Examining Migration to the European Union

By Zara Riaz

“Because of human misery, because of despair, for reasons of persecution in their home countries, these people have nothing else but to take an unseaworthy boat to a European haven,” states Volker Tuerk, Director of International Protection with the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. This state of extreme desperation of migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa is fueling a surge in migration to Europe that poses complex challenges for European policy makers.

People are propelled to make the dangerous gamble for a better life in Europe as their home countries are plagued by political turmoil, economic instability, and armed conflict. The Arab Uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2011 resulted in a significant jump in the number of illegal border-crossing detections in the European Union. In particular, thousands of vulnerable Syrians attempting to flee civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe are desperate to gain asylum in Europe.

In addition to recent migration influxes caused by Arab Uprisings, ongoing war, poverty, and injustice in Sub-Saharan Africa continue to instigate migration to Europe. Situations are particularly acute in the Horn of Africa, resulting in Somalis and Eritreans being among the most populous groups of asylum seekers and migrants in Europe.

For over 20 years, Somalis have been fleeing lawlessness, sectarian strife, and instances of severe drought. Despite militant group Al-Shabaab’s withdrawal from Mogadishu in 2011 and a consequent reduction in open armed conflict, security still remains a challenge with minimal criminal law enforcement. According to UNHCR, this situation of general instability may be sufficiently serious that Article 15c of the Qualification Directive, qualifying an asylum seeker for subsidiary protection due to a real risk of serious harm caused by ongoing non-international conflict, may be invoked without an applicant needing to demonstrate individual factors increasing the risk of harm.

In Eritrea, citizens are running from one of the most closed and repressive states in the world with a tyrannical political system lacking any semblance of rule of law. Many attempt escaping to avoid the mandatory 18-month period of national service that in reality often extends for indefinite periods. This “service for life” as Human Rights Watch states, reduces the country’s workforce into a pool of forced labor. In a report from UN special rapporteur to Eritrea, Sheila B. Keetharuth stated that the military police is carrying out routine conscription round-ups in homes, workplaces, and other public places to round up those who seem fit to serve and draft evaders. Additionally, the Eritrean government uses both official and secret detention facilities to incarcerate thousands of Eritreans without charge or trial. Many prisoners are detained for their political or religious beliefs, faced with torture and cruel and degrading treatment. Those who try to flee risk severe punishment and in many cases, on-the-spot execution. This dire  human rights situation actually led to the creation of special guidelines for assessing Eritrean asylum claims.

With deteriorating security conditions, political upheaval, and general economic instability across the Middle East and Africa, it is no surprise that the number of people detected trying to enter the European Union by irregular means continues to increase. Migration statistics attempting to capture the scope of the problem include:

-75,000 undocumented migrants in the EU from Africa and the Middle East in 2012

-107,000 undocumented migrants in 2013

-55,000 undocumented migrants as of May 2014

The upward trend suggests that by the end of the year, a record number of people will attempt to enter, far surpassing the 140,000 that arrived in 2011 in the midst of the Arab Uprisings.

While these numbers capture the current scale of mass migration to Europe, they fail to portray the conditions facing those who attempt to enter the EU. Another set of numbers is needed for this. Perhaps a starting point is the 366 lives that were lost in October 2013, mostly Somalis and Eritreans, after a boat capsized off of the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Another statistic is the 1,500 people that are estimated to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2011. Even these numbers, however, fall short in portraying the harsh reality of a journey across the “deadliest stretch of water in the world”, as they don’t include those who died at sea without being accounted for.

For those who do survive the journey, whether by sea or through long land routes, conditions within the walls of the European Fortress don’t fare much better. Some reach only to be pushed back shortly after arriving. According to Human Rights Watch, Bulgarian border police have returned people seeking asylum back to Turkey without following proper procedures, violating the international principle of non-refoulement that prohibits sending an individual back to a place where he or she may face persecution. Many of those not sent back immediately are held for indefinite periods in detention centers along Europe’s southern periphery, notorious for poor and squalid conditions .The situation is particularly worrisome in Greece, where the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants reported conditions in which migrants and detainees had limited access to toilets, lacked heating and hot water, and were without adequate medical services.

Despite these perilous conditions and the continued surge in migration, the European Union still lacks an effective and cohesive approach to the issue. Inherent weaknesses in the Common European Asylum System include measures such as the Dublin Regulation that require that the first country in which an asylum seeker enters the EU be responsible for the asylum claim. Although recently recast in June 2013 to include stronger protection measures such as the asylum seeker’s right to information and an appeal against a transfer condition, the fundamental flaw of the Dublin Regulation is that it assumes protection measures are equal across EU member states.

Several countries have individually taken measures to address the problem. Sweden has agreed to offer temporary residence to all Syrian refugees. Germany agreed to offer temporary residency to an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees. These individual responses must be integrated within a larger regional response to address a problem for which such an uneven share of the burden falls on Southern European states. Last October, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum, a humanitarian operation to rescue boats arriving on Italian coasts in response to the hundreds of deaths that occurred in 2013. However, with its estimated cost of $2 million a month, Italy has repeatedly stated that without more financial assistance from the EU the operation cannot be sustained.

Other responses so far have asymmetrically focused on keeping migrants and asylum seekers out rather than seeking sustainable solutions. Last December, the EU launched the European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur) to monitor the EU’s external borders and work with the Frontex border protection agency to coordinate measures to intercept migrant boats before they reach European entry points and force them back. Other restrictive policies include an approximately 8-mile fence in Greece along its Turkish border. A similar boundary is currently in construction along the Bulgarian-Turkish border. However, a “migration policy” consisting of tightened security and taller walls addresses neither the on-going human rights abuses nor the systematic problem itself.

As history suggests, migrants and asylum seekers are easy scapegoats in situations of high unemployment and stagnating economies, so migration issues become highly politicized and toxic at national levels. In addition, the large influx of migrants and asylum seekers, especially Muslims, is fostering xenophobic and racist sentiments across the continent. Migrants are continuously discriminated against for their failure to integrate within society and for diluting the strong cultures and values of Western societies. In Greece, Operation Xenios Zeus has subjected thousands of people presumed to be undocumented migrants to abusive searches on the streets and the arbitrary deprivation of liberty on the basis of ethnic profiling.

The recent gains by far-right populist groups in the EU parliamentary elections in countries such as France, the United Kingdom, and Denmark signal that at a time when situations in conflict-ridden countries in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa are continually deteriorating, Europe is moving even farther away from finding an efficient and coordinated approach to the migration issue. The “less Europe” stance of these groups will push migration and asylum issues deeper into the realm of national rather than European interests, likely resulting in harsh and restrictive policies rather than those that respect the rights of asylum seekers and migrants.

Though a continent that takes pride in upholding values such as human dignity and equality, Europe’s response to mass migration thus far has brought this commitment to respecting human rights into question. Finding a sustainable solution to an issue as complex and multifaceted as mass-migration is not easy, but rescuing people from perilous conditions and offering at least temporary asylum for those fleeing conflict should not be a politicized issue that falls victim to the “more-Europe” versus “less-Europe” debate. If Europe doesn’t see the migration issue as a fundamental question of protecting human rights first, it is not the cultures that European nationalists claim are being eroded as a result of mass migration that are endangered, it is the continent’s identity as a beacon of humanism.


Image Source: Reuters, 2009

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