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“The European asylum process is madness...”

By NNA correspondent Cornelie Unger-Leistner

More refugees than ever before drowned in the Mediterranean in 2016. Aid organisations direct harsh criticism towards EU refugee policy, which is turning the seeking of asylum in Europe into a much more dangerous endevour.

FRANKFURT/BERLIN/MALTA (NNA) – In 2016 more refugees drowned in the Mediterranean than ever before. Aid organisations are laying the responibility for this at the feet of the EU’s refugee policy.

“These people haven’t fallen victim to any natural disaster. It is a political decision to let them drown. The European Union would rather focus on closing off Europe to the refugees than offering them aid,” writes the sea rescue organisation Sea-Watch. The organisation, funded through private donations, was involved in the rescue of more than 20,000 people in the Mediterranean in 2016. 

According to information released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in the last year 5,922 people died in the Mediterranean in total, in comparison to 3,771 the year before. In mid-December activists from Sea-Watch lit 4,699 candles in front of the Bundestag in Berlin to ensure that the often nameless victims of drowning would not be forgotten. Employing the slogan “#SafePassage”, Sea-Watch is demanding the implementation of a safe means of crossing for refugees. This is the only way to put an end to the deaths in the Mediterranean.

In 2015 every 276th refugee or migrant paid for their attempt to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe with their life. According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in 2016 this rose to every 41st refugee.  The organisation, which in 2016 was active in the central Mediterranean with three rescue boats, has also reported on the increasingly unscrupulous practices of the trafficking network. The large, wooden boats that were mainly used in 2014 and 2015 have generally been replaced with cheap, inflatable dinghies to circumvent the tightened border controls. This has also led to an increase in the number of deaths.

Life-threatening strategies

The organisation Pro Asyl writes that in 2016, the EU greatly accelerated the strategy of preventing asylum seekers before they reach European borders in order to impede their continuing journey. In doing this, Brussels has made the seeking of asylum in Europe even more dangerous. The EU-Turkey deal in March already “set an example – for moving prevention away from Europe’s borders and against the protection of refugees”.

Similar arrangements have already been planned with Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The aid organisations have also critcised the so-called “migration partnerships” which the German government has made with various African states, referring to them as a further instrument with which to involve third countries in the European border regime with incentives. These states are often under the control of regimes that “trample human rights”, emphasises See-Watch.

Furthermore, since October, the EU military operation EUNAVFOR MED has been invovled in training the Libyan coast guard, which has demonstrably conducted repatriations from international waters, something which is against international law. “This year we have been able to document several cases of the Libyan coast guard pushing back boats from international waters”, explains Sea-Watch CEO Axel Grafmanns. On 21 October more than 20 people lost their lives in an incursion against a Sea-Watch rescue mission. The organisation is therefore pressing criminal charges.

False arguments

Sea-Watch has rejected as facile the accusations made by the EU border protection agency Frontex that the civilian sea rescue organisation is making things easier for trafficking gangs. Frontex argues that the decreasing number of emergency calls from inflatable dinghies provides evidence that the smugglers know where the rescue organisation’s boats are located, and that as a result the completely overloaded refugee boats could be directed to these locations. The journeys thus became shorter, the business more lucrative.

This argument completely misses the point of why NGOs are operating in these waters at all. “That we are dealing with the rescue of people who are in an acutely life-threating situation is ignored,” says Frank Dörner, a member of the Sea-Watch management board. Sea-Watch actively searches for boats, to help prevent casualties. This means that boats are often found before they have to make an emergency call when they get into trouble.

In addition, it misses the point that all of these organisations are taking on a job that should really be being fulfilled by the EU, “namely to prevent the deaths of those trying to make it to Europe, because they have no other option to safely make it there”.

The rescue organisation is of the opinion that the EU is trying “to tighten its borders before the bumper election year of 2017”. The “civilian eyes” of the sea rescue organisation are interfering in this. What Sea-Watch fears is that the task of NGOs to help in the rescue of refugees will be criminalised.

Over the course of 2016 Sea-Watch has observed an increasing tendency of boats belonging to the EU mission to withdraw from acute rescue efforts. “In the case of an emergency, there is an obligation to do all you can to help as fast as possible. However, the better equiped military ships had a tendency towards simply observing the civilian rescue missions,” says Dörner.

A breach of maritime law

This was the case, for example, on 25 September 2016, as a military vessel simply observed from a distance while the Sea-Watch 2 and the Astral, belonging to the Spanish organisation Pro Activa, were conducting a rescue mission at the limits of their capacity. “The support of the EU navy was limited to 12 bottles of water and a couple of biscuits, and even these were only given to us after several requests for assistance.”

The argument in this case is that the mission’s main job is not primarily sea rescue operations. “We need to check which of these cases consitute a breach of international maritime law,” says Axel Grafmanns, CEO of Sea-Watch.

According to Sea-Watch, the accusations against the Libyan coast guard are only “the tip of the iceberg of the human rights abuses” in Libya against asylum seekers and migrants. According to reports by Amnesty International, asylum seekers in Libya are arbitrarily detained in complete disregard of their human rights. Refugees are mistreated and tortured, and several detention centres are controlled by militias.

In the light of this, continuing to strengthen the Libyan task forces through training programmes within the framework of EU military operations is “sheer cynicism”, writes Pro Asyl. The organisation emphasises that it has expressed criticism of the project from the start and points out that the EU “has been made culpable in the most heinous of human rights abuses against refugees through its cooperation with Libya”.

“State support for the trafficking industry”

But what can be done beyond the policy of simply turning away refugees?

One of the best books tp deal with the topic of the current refugee situation is Einbruch der Wirklichkeit – auf dem Flüchtlingstreck durch Europa (Reality Check – The Refugee Routes Though Europe) by the German-Iranian Author Navid Kermani.

Kermani, who was reporting for the news magazine SPIEGEL and has now published a longer version of his article as a short book, paints a very nuanced picture of his observations made on the refugee routes. He poses the question of whether the refugees and migrants who are making their way to Europe along these routes really are the professionals and engineers expected by Germany.

His view of those responsible politically is quite clear when he writes “[...] that the European asylum process is madness is not disputed by any official who I have met. But we also have to make clear the reasons for this madness: In order to aply for ayslum in Europe, refugees have no other choice but to travel here illegally. The European asylum agreements are nothing more than wholesale state support for the trafficking industry. And it is not only the traffickers who profit from this, but also the right-wing populists, who take advantage of this chaos on the borders to conjure up images of the fall of western civilisation”.

War, economic crisis and also climate change have all contributed to the causes of the current movement of refugees. But, spiritual background and demographic developments have also played a role, as NNA has reported in several articles over the previous year (see links below).

It cannot be expected that a solution will be found in the near future. With the refugees, the world’s crises are moving ever closer to Europe, and Europe is reacting by turning itself into a fortress, thereby betraying its claims to and foundations in universal human rights.

No simple solution

Kermani also emphasises that there is no simple solution to deal with the flow of refugees. But he points out that for a long time there have been practical proposals “with which the migratory movements can be directed and controlled in an ordered manner”.

They include the proposal to finally separate the concepts of political asylum and immigration. While immigration can be focused on the needs of the host country, in terms of ayslum, the needs of those seeking protection need to take priority. The author argues that those who could hope to immigrate legally would not invest time and money into a dangerous, expensive migration, but rather in qualifications and language acquisition.

The 450,000 unprocessed asylum applications in Germany at the end of 2016, for example, make a clear point. This figure includes both groups; prospective immigrants and those in need of protection have been grouped together, and the employees of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) have to assess each case in protracted consultation and decision-making processes. Increasingly this is leading to court cases, as appeals against the decisions made have been entered.

For those in the process, current asylum procedure means years of uncertainty and the ability to lead only a provisional life, a fact that makes integration much more difficult or even impossible, as it becomes impossible for them to believe that perhaps Germany could become their new home.


Further Reading:  
Navid Kermani (2016), Einbruch der Wirklichkeit - Auf dem Flüchtlingstreck durch Europa. München. ISBN No. 976.3. 496 .69208-6.

Item: 170113-01EN Date: 13 January 2016 

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Activists from Sea-Watch in December placed 4,699 candles in front of the German parliament in Berlin in in memory of the refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. The candles form the word #SafePassage, which is what Sea-Watch is demanding for migrants coming to Europe.<br>Foto: Ruben Neugebauer