Securitisation not the response to deaths at sea

Sea of humanity: supporters of Amnesty International and other NGOs marching in Brussels as the EU summiteers met. Flickr / Amnesty International. All rights reserved.

This week an EU-wide control
operation to
detect, detain and possibly deport irregular migrants has been taking place. Operation ‘Amberlight’
is a collaborative effort between the EU border-control agency Frontex and
national police forces, aimed at collecting information and checking
third-country nationals’ legal status. Non-European, undocumented migrants are
the main target of these controls.  

Simultaneously, the worst tragedy yet has occurred in the Mediterranean,
with more
migrant deaths in the last week than in the whole of 2013—to which the EU’s
response is a minimal commitment to expand search-and-rescue operations and mount
more border controls. These two parallel occurrences sum up the EU’s current
approach to migration: securitisation at all costs, even if it means thousands
of human beings, fleeing war and desperation, dying.

During the last similar operation, ‘Mos Maiorum’, in October 2014, more
than 19,000 irregular migrants were intercepted but very little was officially
reported on the protection of migrants’ fundamental rights. At the time, local
activists and civil-society organisations denounced the risk of arbitrary
detentions, poor living conditions in detention and worrying complaints of racial profiling.

Indeed, many people reported they had been ‘stopped and searched’, based
on the colour of their skin. Targeting people because they fit a particular stereotype
leads to racist practices, especially when police forces use European
institutions’ decisions as an instrument for discrimination.

Even if over the last
three years such operations have become an established tradition, this is the
first time that the Council of the European Union has allowed Frontex to also monitor
sanctions imposed by the EU
defining the ‘facilitation of illegal immigration’. It is not yet clear if the penalties will be applied only to migrants or
also to those—abusive employers—exploiting their irregular status.

Shown the exit door

It is no coincidence that Amberlight has been taking place at the same time
as the tragedies in the Mediterranean. With the ‘Fortress Europe’ approach of
the EU’s migration agenda, it does not matter if someone is fleeing a country
to demand international protection or is seeking a new home in a member state: current
policies aim to ensure any kind of migrant is shown the borders’ exit door. Europe
is locked.

Securitisation measures will not solve the structural issues linked to
migration and asylum. In the context of Mos Maiorum alone, some 11,000 of those
intercepted requested
asylum then or later. People in need will always find alternative routes to
reach international protection.

The reinforcement of border controls and operations co-ordinated by Frontex
do not put human rights and dignity at the heart of potential solutions. In recent
days, more than 1,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean but even when someone
is fortunate enough to enter the EU and to request asylum or a residence status
on European soil, the administrative procedures are challenging and leave many
applicants in despair.

the EU’s current approach to migration: securitisation at all costs, even if it means thousands of human beings, fleeing war and desperation, dying

Two weeks ago, Belgium witnessed the suicide
of two asylum-seekers who could no longer stand the long and severe residence
application standards and the lack of a real, supportive integration system.
And the Dutch Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum-Seekers reported that
13 asylum-seekers committed suicide in just the first half of 2014.

Such control operations continue to fight an imaginary threat. Migrants
and asylum-seekers should be treated as victims, not criminals. The ten-point action
plan on migration released last Monday by the joint EU Foreign and Home
Affairs Council and the
four priority areas for action agreed by EU leaders at the special European
summit on Thursday only confirm the EU’s real intention: maintaining border
surveillance through naval missions (which can again lead to push-backs at sea
or at any other border), rather than putting forward concrete solutions for a
collapsing migration system.

The EU’s minimalist approach (huge means and resources to declare a war
on smugglers rather than focusing on saving lives) does not address the urgency
of responding to migration challenges. Keeping people beyond Europe’s borders
will push them to flee through other potential dangerous routes.

Coercive measures

The Mediterranean crisis is also being exploited to put back on the table
two policies which do not respect a fundamental rights approach. The first is fingerprinting
of migrants and asylum-seekers. Many organisations have already reported the
use of coercive measures in the collection of migrants’ digital fingerprints. The
EU should ensure that this practice is undertaken without use of violence or
physical force and in full respect of data-protection standards.

The second is forced returns. This is controversial and recent
assessments confirm that many fundamental rights issues are not properly
addressed: inhumane detention conditions, the mechanisms of entry bans (if the
migrant wants to return to Europe) and how these third-country nationals are to
be reintegrated into their home country. By implementing this return policy,
the EU is closing its eyes to the fact that most asylum-seekers are not on the
move for economic reasons but because they are fleeing regions where they face
war and oppression.

EU institutions should not only improve measures for safe and legal avenues
for migrants and asylum-seekers but should also provide clear guidelines for
responsibility for asylum-seekers among the member states. From a human-rights perspective, the EU should also
better oversee the work of Frontex. A mechanism enabling individual complaints
of violations of fundamental rights would demonstrate the will to improve the
agency’s accountability.

The new European
Migration Agenda, due to be presented in May, is an opportunity for the EU to
finally act upon its values and commitment to fundamental rights. Let’s hope it
won’t miss the boat this time around.

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