In times in which 3,500 migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea during the last year and 1,200 individuals, while drifting in two ghost ships abandoned by their traffickers, have been saved by the Italian Marine last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, raises two distinctive demands in a recent interview with the Swiss Le Temps.
Firstly, new legal migration channels to combat ever-growing practice of human trafficking in the context of migration from the African continent to Europe.
Secondly, a humanitarian response mechanism by the European Union replacing the operation “Mare Nostrum” since Triton’s mandate remains primarily concerned with issues of border security, leaving aside the much needed rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
Guterres explicitly remarks
Triton is not enough. It is vital to develop a large-scale action like Mare Nostrum, to avoid new human tragedies. Everyone has the right to be saved at sea. The European countries can not ignore these tragedies.
To clarify, Triton has been launched at the beginning of November 2014 by the European Union Agency Frontex with a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum’s and with the intention to operate much more closer to the shores, only rescuing when ‘absolutely necessary’. Not seemingly aware that behind those statics of migrants in the Mediterranean stand already vulnerable human lives, the UK Foreign Office boldly claimed at the end of October 2014 that
The UK would not support future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as such operations can encourage more people to attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing to enter Europe.
The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.
In response to this, Michael Diedring, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, proclaimed he was ‘absolutely opposed’ to the policy.
He further explained in an interview with the BBC at the end of October 2014
One of the reasons these people are making the journeys is because the policy of the European Union is that there are almost no safe and legal means to access European soil to file an asylum claim.
So individuals who are stranded in north Africa who are fleeing for their lives, the only way that they can attempt to come to Europe is through the use of organised criminals.
I am disgusted by the UK and European Union’s position; it is morally reprehensible.
If the EU has not put in place safe and legal channels to access territory, then at least the EU should take responsibility for those who attempt to make the journey.
With these words, he fully agrees with Guterres’ opinion that in order to decrease the number of deaths and to combat human traffickers exploiting the already vulnerable migrants, new avenues offering legal migration channels must be set into place. The argument that rescue operations serve as an incentive for human traffickers and migrants alike, as raised among others by the UK Foreign Office, can thus be evaluated as irrelevant and highly offensive for persecuted individuals in need and right of protection.
In support of such a claim, Guterres highlights
Among those who cross the Mediterranean, there are also economic migrants, but in 2013 and 2014 the majority were people fleeing real persecution – especially from Syria and Eritrea – and therefore are in need of protection. The tragedy is that these people want to enter by means of legal migration channels, but because of the absence thereof fall into the hands of smugglers and their evil trade. Protection must be guaranteed to those who qualify as refugees and new legal migration channels must be considered, which allow to combat the smugglers. The development of a strong rescue mechanism is more essential than ever.
N.B. According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (prescribing validity after 1 January 1951) and its 1967 Protocol (prescribing validity to the Convention also before 1 January 1951), economic migrants are excluded from the definition of a refugee as a refugee is someone who
owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Later in the interview Guterres rightly analyses that there is no “Fortress Europe” since borders also operate within the European Union; particularly in the fight against ‘illegal migration’ border controls and police searches have been arbitrarily put into place multiple times in 2014. Those practices have further been exercised in a highly racist manner mainly addressing individuals with darker skin or appearing less privileged.
Moreover, he identifies that Europe is in need of a consistent common asylum policy with a global perspective on migration in mind. After all, he concludes that 86% of the world’s refugees live in developing countries.
Guterres notes he aims to follow Jean Monet, who once said that he was neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but determined.
The former Prime Minister of Portugal appears to have a very realistic, humanitarian-oriented take on the current situation of migrants in the Mediterranean. This is particularly refreshing to hear in a context of rising xenophobia, islamophobia and denial of responsibility for the suffering of migrants by some of the national governments in Europe.