REFUGEES AT SEA “IS NOT AN ITALIAN PROBLEM”: SHARED EU RESPONSIBILITY IN THE MEDITERRANEAN CRISIS

The influx of migrants arriving by boat on the Italian coast has continued to grow during the first months of 2014. Around 1500 migrants were rescued on the morning of Easter Saturday. Italy appeals to Europe for solidarity and a burden sharing solution.

 

The number of migrants landing on the Italian coast in the Mediterranean Sea has risen dramatically during the last few years. Conflicts in North Africa associated with the Arab Spring[1] contributed significantly to this increase in arrivals to Lampedusa, part the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, in 2011.

The new wave of migration from Syria is leading to alarming figures: according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) around 20,000 have completed the journey since the beginning of the year.

Over Easter, Italian units deployed by Operation Mare Nostrum rescued over 1500 migrants spotted 100 miles off Lampedusa[2]. After the “Lampedusa tragedy” in October 2013 when more than 100 African migrants lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach the European coast, world attention turned to Italy.

“This is not an Italian problem”, Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said in front of the parliamentary committee at the beginning of April, adding that “our effort is to make others understand that this is a common problem”.

Indeed this is a European issue- what has been defined as “the crisis of migration”. European countries are now currently facing a very real issue of thousands of people attempting to flee extreme conditions of poverty, inequality and conflict.

Although asylum is a human right enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration, the legal channels open to asylum seekers to reach a safe country of refuge are increasingly limited. The European politics in the Mediterranean Sea has mainly been to prevent migrants from reaching Europe by boat thus leading countries to constantly violate their obligations under both international and European human rights law.

According to a report issued by Amnesty International in 2013[3], collective expulsions (mainly of Syrians fleeing war) have been occurring recently on the Greece-Turkey border. This has seriously undermined one of the basic principles of the asylum system, the so-called non-refoulement. Furthermore, even when migrants manage to reach the European territory they are treated as criminals and held in detention centers, most of the time in degrading human conditions.

 “It is very important that European countries all over the continent keep their borders open and [provide] adequate assistance”, said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antόnio Guterres, on 22 November 2013.

And now the Italian government is under pressure. Rome’s policy on migration has been strongly criticized in its attempt to unofficially encourage migrants arriving to Italy continuing their journeys to other Schengen countries, mainly in the north of Europe. A policy such as this one only creates discontent and chaos among European countries given that, according to the 2003 Dublin regulation, asylum applications can only be processed in the country where refugees first set foot on EU soil. This is clearly a way of shifting on others the burden of responsibility for these people.

Migration policies need to be reviewed. The abolition of the law which criminalised migrants has represented a good starting point at domestic level[4]. The coming Italian presidency of the European Union will be the opportunity for Italy to show it cares about the rights of these people. Europe recognises that life is an inalienable value, that fairness is a target to be constantly pursued and that justice should guide the decisions of our governments. It is now time to act as a unified region facing the issue together.

Italy calls on Europe for a burden-sharing solution, respectful of the principle of solidarity in an era where boundaries among countries are increasingly blurred. What is needed now is a rapid and comprehensive implementation of the Common European Asylum System developed since 2007. This will lead to a fairer distribution system and a reliable mechanism to identify overburdened national asylum systems.

Serena Gonfiantini

 

[1] In 2011 the conflicts associated with the fall of the former president of Tunisia Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power in Tunisia compelled many Tunisians to leave; furthermore, fall of the Qaddafi regime in Lybia and the NATO intervention also increased the number of asylum seekers arriving to the European Shores.

[2] Mare Nostrum is a humanitarian operation which has been launched by Italy on October 2013 to tackle the immigration emergency.

[3] AI. 2013. Frontier Europe. Human Rights Abuses on Greece’s Border with Turkey.

[4] On 2nd of April 2014 the Italian Parliament repealed law 94/2009 (so called “Bossi-Fini” from its promoters) which criminalised migrants.

 

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