Refugee crisis exacerbated by ‘Fortress Europe’

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The Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard for asylum seekers who travel by boat towards what they hope will be even a fragment of salvation; they are left with Hobson’s choice – without any legal recourse and oftentimes with little time at their disposal it is either they board a crowded skiff, anticipating the possibility of survival, or they remain enveloped by terrifying and unbearable prospects for themselves and their families.

According to a recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report there have been “more than 2,500 people [who] have died or gone missing at sea, including over 2,200 since the start of June,” and “over 75,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014,” with Italy receiving the greatest number of refugees, according to a report by the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC). In Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration the International Organization for Migration (IOM) documented the number of deaths, by region, and the numbers are staggering. Regional estimates from The Migrants’ Files, one of the resources listed by IOM in their 2014 report, notes that between the year 2000 and 2014 over 25,000 people have died on their way to Europe. The interactive map created by The Migrants’ Files project is unsettling – each red circle leads the reader to a short sentence chronicling how many have perished on their way to Europe. The Migrants’ Files also includes a page on the profiles of these men, women and children, some are identified by name, with a description of how they were discovered, while others are classified with ambiguous labels such as ‘a baby’ or ‘a Somali man.’

In 2013, 366 asylum seekers died after their boat caught fire and sank not far from the Italian island of Lampedusa – from the Libyan port of Misrata some 500 African refugees, many of whom were Eritrean and Somali, were packed tightly into the boat, hoping to reach shore with their friends, family members, undoubtedly seeing a better life for one another in the distance. The catastrophic voyage left death in its wake, and according to one survivor interviewed by Zed Nelson for The Guardian, an 18-year-old named Fanus, who had left Eritrea with her best friend Kisanet, the expensive and dangerous trek turned deadly as passengers began to rise from slumber to a fire raging and sea water rushing in, causing the boat to capsize:

“A guy had me by the neck and was dragging me under, but I pushed him down and was able to shoot myself up to the surface...I'd never been in a body of water before. I was trying to stay afloat by splashing my hands like a dog...They were the longest [4] hours of my life. The rescuers spotted my hands splashing the water, but my head was almost under.”

Recently Britain refused to take part in the Frontex Mediterranean refugee operation, the announcement coming from Joyce Aneley, Minister of State of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who said that the UK does not support “planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.” This announcement was denounced by humanitarian organizations and human rights advocates like Refugee Council Chief Executive Maurice Wren:

"The British Government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you're running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe's doorstep.

The answer isn't to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it's to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection."

Refugees who manage to reach Europe are still at risk, facing expulsion and violent anti-immigrant sentiment. Asylum seekers are faced with a long, strenuous journey and grim prospects; according to the Refugee Council of Australia “in 2011, only 0.7 percent of the world’s refugees were resettled. While 27 countries are involved in resettlement (up from 14 seven years ago), only 79,784 refugees were resettled (a figure 29 percent lower than in 2009).”

Mandatory detention, what is often referred to as “offshore processing,” is another dehumanizing practice that has been widely criticized but continues in places like Australia, where refugees, including children, are sent to Nauru and Manus Island where in 2013 it was reported that those detained were “raped and abused with the full knowledge of staff.” Along with abuse refugees are made to face immeasurable isolation and a change of status that has tremendous impact not only on the psyche of adults but that of children, who are made increasingly aware of dramatic lifestyle changes. In Woman Alone: The Fight for Survival by Syria’s Refugee Women UNHCR collected the stories of Syrian women who are faced with the life-altering experience of becoming a refugee, many times overnight. According to the report “almost one in five of the women interviewed said their former heads of household were unable to find refuge because of visa or other entry restrictions.”

A German government panel released a draft report which called for unemployed ‘foreigners’ to be deported. “The draft proposal points to an EU court ruling which said six months was an appropriate period to reassess whether someone should be allowed to stay… The 133-page report also backed making it harder for immigrant to claim benefits,” according to The Local. Earlier this year activists from Amnesty International protested in front of the Spanish interior ministry against immigration policies of Spain and the European Union, bringing attention to EU failures when it comes to the protection of migrants who are often left to die, detained illegally, and denied the right to declare asylum.

In July of 2014 refugees in Berlin resisted their eviction from an occupied school in Kreuzberg, where more than 200 migrants had been staying since 2012, while hundreds of police surrounded them, demanding they leave. In a statement released by the refugee resistors in Berlin they described being abused by police who watched them from another rooftop, “waving [towards them], not only with handcuffs, but also with bananas.” In Calais, northern France, in May of 2014, three tent camps, including a Syrian and Eritrean camp, were threatened with eviction by police who were “citing scabies and poor sanitation to justify destroying people’s homes without providing them with any alternative solution.” In July of 2013, a rally was held in Athens, Greece after Shehzad Luqman, a 27-year-old Pakistani immigrant, was stabbed to death by neo-Nazi’s in the shadows of growing anti-immigrant attitudes. In 3.5 years Canada, which has made many unreliable promises in regards to the Syrian refugee tragedy, has resettled less than 200 Syrian refugees “and is still processing asylum applications from another 1,300 who made their way to Canada on their own”, according to journalist Peter Goodspeed.

In EU Asylum Procedures and the Right to an Effective Remedy Marcelle Reneman, Assistant Professor in the Migration Law Section of the Department of Constitutional and Administrative Law at the VU University Amsterdam, writes in chapter one, in the section on “the prohibition of refoulement and the right to asylum,” that the prohibition of refoulement, which is defined by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as being the “expulsion of persons who have the right to be recognised as refugees,” is recognised as an EU fundamental right in Article 19 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union:

“EU law not only provides for a prohibition of refoulement but also for a right to asylum in Article 18 of the Charter. This provision states that the right to asylum shall be guaranteed with due respect for the Refugee Convention and in accordance with the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).”

Reneman notes that “in asylum cases a lack of procedural guarantees may undermine the EU rights usually claimed by asylum applicants”, and that the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees “does not contain any standards for refugee status determination proceedings” which means that though UNHCR has endorsed guidelines in respect to asylum procedures they are not comprehensive and are not binding “as they assume that States are free to choose their own procedural system.”

Refugees are faced with almost unimaginable struggles – from the process of making their way to their respective destinations, being placed in refugee camps, oftentimes being attacked by local authorities and by members of right wing communities, and regularly being denied asylum despite going through legal channels. Their own recourse is to confront evictions, expulsions, forced camp occupancy, and other acts of systematic violence perpetrated by the state and members of local communities. The right to migration, to asylum, has been relentlessly undermined by members of the European Union as there has been little to no effort made in regards to defining and standardizing even basic standards in regards to asylum procedures, thereby undermining “the effective exercise of rights,” in the words of Reneman. Left with no alternatives, up against an iron wall and geographical lines that are closing in all around them, for many refugees the only choice they are left with is to take a journey into the unknown and face the merciless sea.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'

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