'Unviable' - Lessons for the UK in the EU's Abandoning of Migrants in the Mediterranean

Recent history tells us that taking a 'tough stance' on migrants does not stop irregular crossings, nor does it save lives.

On Tuesday the 18th of August, asylum seeker Abdulfatah Hamdallah set off with a companion from the French coast in an inflatable dinghy, in an attempt to cross the English Channel and reach the United Kingdom.

At some point in the night, Hamdallah’s friend was found back on the beach by a French walker, suffering from hypothermia. In the course of their crossing, the pair had inadvertently punctured their dingy with one of the shovels they were using as makeshift oars.

[PICTURE: Abdulfatah Hamdallah, source: Facebook]

A search-and-rescue mission was organized for Hamdallah. The 28-year-old Sudanese national’s body was found hours later on a beach near Calais.

Hamdallah’s death is the first to result from a recent increase in attempts by migrants to cross the channel. So far this year, approximately 5000 have successfully made the attempt, with more than 1000 having arrived since August 5.

That 5000 equates to a 0.5% increase in the total number of suspected undocumented immigrants currently living in the UK (though the estimates vary widely), or 0.16% of the number of people with visas granted in 2019, or 0.07% of the UK’s total population.  

But with media coverage verging on the hysterical, including live broadcasts of reporters in speed-boats tracking down migrant boats and peppering them with questions en route, public and political reaction has been predictably hostile.

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel labelled the number of crossing “appalling.” Her government’s objective is to “make this route unviable and [arrest] the criminals facilitating these crossings.”

To that end, the government appointed civil servant and former Royal Marine Dan O’Mahoney to the newly created role of ‘Clandestine Channel Threat Commander.’

The British public will be glad to know that such a distinguished figure will be leading the fight against the ‘threat’ of, among others, two young men in a dinghy.

[PICTURE: Priti Patel, right, and Dan O’Mahoney, left. source: UK Home Office]

Never mind that, in this case, there were no ‘people smugglers’ involved. Abdulfatah Hamdallah attempted the crossing of his own initiative, after learning that his application for asylum in France had been rejected.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who could only summon enough compassion to label the actions of those such as Hamdallah as “very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal.” He blames the French for not adequately policing their maritime borders. He wants migrants caught and returned before they leave French waters.

French member of the National Assembly for the Calais region, Pierre-Henri Dumont, blamed the British asylum system for the death.

“What we should focus on is… not to have the Channel being a new Mediterranean Sea… to be sure we don’t see dead bodies lying on both of our sea coasts.” He told the Telegraph in an interview.

Dumont’s comment was tragically underlined last week when a shipwreck of the coast of Libya claimed the lives of at least 45 people attempting to cross to Europe – the deadliest such accident off the north African country this year.

In total, at least 300 migrants have died already this year trying to make the same crossing, according to official tallies. The true number is likely much greater.

But if Johnson and Patel are hoping that by further fortifying their borders and making routes ‘unviable’ they will help to save the lives of migrants they profess to care so much for from the people smugglers they so demonise, they would do well to study the situation in the Mediterranean a little more closely.

Take the case of 150 people rescued from two overcrowded wooden boats by the crew of the private rescue ship Alan Kurdi in April this year.

[PICTURE: The crew of the Alan Kurdi, source: Sea-Eye]

If not for the efforts of the private rescue ship, scores of people would surely have died in the sea, or else been hauled back to Libya by that nation’s coast-guard to face the almost equally unpalatable fate of arbitrary, indefinite imprisonment, enslavement and torture. Many who are captured by the Libyans simply disappear.

Immediately following the rescue, the Italian government issued an extraordinary decree, declaring its ports ‘unsafe,’ thereby refusing to accept the disembarkation of any migrants rescued at sea. 24 hours later, the island of Malta followed suit. Both nations argued that, due to the ongoing COVID-19 emergency, they could not guarantee the safety of migrants who arrived.

The result of this was that the Alan Kurdi was forced to remain at sea for a further 10 days, while the health of those on board deteriorated, forcing some to be medically evacuated during the night. One man on board attempted to commit suicide.

Eventually, it was agreed that the migrants would be held in 14-day quarantine on an Italian cruise ship off the coast, and then distributed among EU countries.

Given the circumstances, the migrants were extremely lucky to be found by the Alan Kurdi, and lucky too that its crew, of the German NGO Sea-Eye, were able to negotiate a solution with European governments committed to trying to extricate themselves from as many of their international legal obligations as they can.

Others have not been so lucky. A week later, four more boats carrying 258 migrants between them ran into trouble. NGO Alarm Phone quickly notified European authorities of the boats’ situations. A Spanish NGO scrambled to rescue one of the boats. As for the others,

“EU states [knew] about this for 58 hours and [failed] to intervene. We have no idea where the other boats are, whether the people might have been rescued or whether they drowned,” said Maurice Stierl, of Alarm Phone.

In the end, the EU did, in fact, intervene. Maltese authorities later admitted to having co-ordinated the interception of the boat by a Libyan fishing boat from the air.

This was only after they - according to Alarm Phone’s account - ordered a passing Portuguese-flagged cargo ship not to intervene. Three people drowned trying to swim from the migrant boat to the cargo-ship. On the return journey back to Libya, a further five died for dehydration and hunger.

That the Coronavirus pandemic might be forcing states such as Italy to turn their backs on international law is being treated with scepticism even by some Italian politicians.

[The ‘unsafe’ ports decree] is really ignominious,said Gregorio De Falco, an Italian senator. “Coronavirus is being used as an excuse.

Regardless of the COVID situation, the current Italian Government’s enmity to migrants is well-known. The country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, was last year accused of overstepping his own ministerial powers in attempting to force the Navy and the Coast Guard to do more to ensure migrants did not reach Italian ports.

[PICTURE: Italian Interior Minister and Deputy PM, Matteo Salvini, Source: Reuters]

Salvini had, at that time, also barred NGO rescue ships from docking in Italy. The risk that terrorists were infiltrating migrant boats was a “certainty,” he said.  When one ship, the Mare Jonio, defied the ban and brought 50 rescued migrants to Lampedusa – the closest safe port to the site of the rescue – the Deputy Prime Minister had the boat seized.

At the time, Salvini was already being investigated for possible illegal detention and kidnapping by his own nation’s authorities, following his refusal to allow another 100 to disembark from an already docked ship.

Coronavirus-related port-closures is not the only hurdle facing rescue efforts in the Mediterranean. At the time of writing, another charity rescue vessel, the Ocean Viking, is still impounded in Sicily, with authorities citing several technical and operational irregularities.

The Ocean Viking’s crew claim that the problems cited are nonsensical, inconsistent with previous positive inspections, and amount to ‘administrative harassment aimed at impeding [their] life-saving work.”

[PICTURE: The Ocean Viking, source: AFP]

The impediment and even criminalization of NGO workers trying to save lives in the Mediterranean as long been a feature of European policy. Volunteers risk arrest for the work they do; some of have been charged with people-smuggling themselves for rescuing people at sea and bringing them to Europe.

Now, with such a deficit of trust between European states and NGOs, it isn’t hard to conclude that Coronavirus is being used at least partly as a pretence to make the work of rescue NGOs even more difficult.

“We are very concerned about the effects of the Italian decree and how European authorities are using the Covid-19 pandemic to increase restrictive measures. With Malta also decreasing rescue efforts, we are witnessing a deadly rescue gap off the Libyan coast,’ said Alarm Phone in an interview with the Guardian.

“…Emergency scenarios do not grant Malta the authority to entirely shelve its human rights obligations. There are minimum standards that must always be met, a threshold that no State is ever permitted cross. We fear that Malta is exploiting the public health emergency to deprive migrants of their human dignity…” reads a join press-release from a number of different aid organizations.

Of course, NGO rescue ships would not even be necessary were it not for the EU’s termination of its own search-and-rescue operation in 2018. Operation Sophia was replaced with Operation Irini, with a focus on enforcing the Libyan arms embargo, rather than rescuing migrants.

Even this operation was nearly scuttled when concerns were raised that EU vessels might be stationed too close to known smuggling routes, and thus have their legal obligations to rescue ships in distress activated. After further consultation, the ship’s operational area was shifted further away, so that the migrants could drown in peace.

The pressure on the EU to stop rescuing migrants comes, unsurprisingly, from Italy, as well as other anti-refugee governments in Hungary and Austria. Their argument is that the possibility of rescue acts as a pull factor encouraging more migrants to attempt the journey. Just as the UK government is arguing now, by making the route ‘unviable,’ they will, in fact, be saving the lives of those who will therefore not attempt to cross.

There is no statistical evidence to support this claim.

There is, in fact, peer-reviewed evidence to dispute it, with researchers from the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute finding no correlation between the presence of rescue vessels and the number of attempted crossings between 2014 and 2019. Relevant influencing factors were found to be local circumstances in Libya and, of course, the weather.

Internal EU documents obtained by statewatch.org revealed that EU officials were aware that Sophia’s five-year presence had not impacted migrant numbers, which had, in fact, decreased substantially over the relevant period.

And, as always, high-level institutions work publicly to salvage European values which individual states seem to have little interest in upholding.

“Despite the unprecedented challenges European countries face due to COVID-19, saving lives at sea and disembarking survivors in a safe port must continue”, stated Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

But, again as usual, despite the welcome rhetoric, little is actually done to try and enforce these imperatives. When asked by reporters about the legality of Italy and Malta having closed their ports, a European Commission spokesman responded that,

“We are not in a position to make a comment of a legal nature on this particular case.”

One hopes that the EU will be able to set a more humane example for their brother nation across the channel to follow. Unfortunately, governments are still all too willing to follow the strategies of securitization and demonization of vulnerable people.

Civil society must respond to this strategy with love, acceptance and tolerance - not just for refugees, but for their own countrymen and women, whose fears of the nebulous threat of the stranger will not be soothed by further conflict and polarization.

Rescuing migrants in danger in the sea has not been shown to increase the numbers that will thereafter come. Leaving them to languish or even actively forcing them back from one’s territory is a crime that will do nothing but pass the buck onto others.

[PHOTO: Syrian Refugee Hassan Akkad, in a message beamed onto the cliffs of Dover by activists, source: Youtube]

If the people of the United Kingdom, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, feel their country cannot support a less than 1% increase in the number of refugees it currently hosts - which amounts to 0.5% of the world’s total, they might best direct their concerns at the apparent scarcity of their nation’s resources to their own government, not those even more desperate than they are for a better life.

Because the last thing the Government wants is to answer those questions directly.

As Syrian refugee and now NHS cleaner at a COVID hospital, Hassan Akkad, said in a message beamed onto the cliffs of Dover,

“They are using us to distract you from how badly they have managed during this pandemic.”

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