Refugees being rescued by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) in the Mediterranean. (Photo: MSF)

This article is part of Global Geneva’s Focus series on Oceans.

In January 2019 I had the good fortune to finally get to Sicily, or at least to the ancient town of Palermo and other nearby locations.  It was often cold and wet but there were few tourists and much to see.

One morning I headed out early to visit the magnificent 12th century Norman-Byzantine cathedral in Monreale that overlooks Palermo.  It was built with the help of North African and other Mediterranean craftsmen. It is renowned for its gold mosaics, stunning cloisters and panoramic views from a narrow walkway on the roof. The cathedral and other places of wonder in Palermo were granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015 given their architectural styles, a fascinating fusion of Arabic, Islamic and Western cultural influences.

To escape a heavy hailstorm while waiting for a bus, I took refuge in a small coffee house and ordered a cappuccino. Looking around, I soon noticed a young African man in deep conversation with two Italians who, it transpired, were helping him prepare for a demonstration later in the day. People were protesting anti-migrant legislation pushed by the far-right Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini; it became law in November 2018  (LINK).

The African teenager, who had arrived from the Sahel a few months previously, was preparing to speak on behalf of his local Municipality at the rally.  He was dressed for the occasion in a dark suit and white shirt. He beamed with delight when presented with the Tricolore sash by the Mayor of the small neighbouring town in which he lived.

The local Mayor explained that both he and others were in full agreement with Leoluca Orlando, the Mayor of Palermo, widely known for his welcoming attitude toward asylum seekers and other migrants. The Palermitani – inhabitants of the city – enjoy representation on the Council of Culture where, as stipulated by Mayor Orlando, residency is the sole requirement to secure citizenship rights (LINK).

Palermo cathedral in Sicily. (Photo: Palermo tourism)

Sicily: A migration hub since antiquity

Being in multi-cultural Sicily was a constant reminder of the pivotal role of this island in the history of the Mediterranean that acts as a maritime bridge between the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe.   Sicily has operated as a migration hub since antiquity.   It has provided a home or place of conquest, culture, and commerce to a long list of peoples and civilizations.  These include the Phoenicians, people from the Greek city-states, the Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman Empires as well as Normans, Bourbons, French, Spanish, Austrians and Italians.

Yet, in the second decade of the 21st century, the Mediterranean has become a contested space for asylum seekers and other migrants. For those in search of refuge, it has also become the most dangerous transit route in the world.

People who have fled their homes to escape war, persecution and life-threatening situations must now do battle with the lethal policies of the European Uion. Brussels, in league with various EU Member States, has invested in the creation of constraints that makes the borders of the EU, including the Mediterranean – the most deadly in the world. According to Reece Jones, a political geographer and specialist on the militarization of national frontiers, some two-thirds of all migrant deaths occur en route to, or at the EU’s border (LINK). Together, both the Mediterranean and EU frontiers now stand as a near-insurmountable barrier to keep out refugees and others in need of safety and a modicum of humanity.

A painful reminder of opposing visions within the EU

The number of recorded deaths and migrants missing in the Mediterranean in 2018, according to UNHCR estimates, was 2,275 (LINK). As smugglers do not maintain records of who, or how many, are crowded into their boats, the actual death toll is believed to be much higher. Even if the 2018 figures are lower than previous years given fewer attempted crossings, the mortality rate has changed from one death at sea for 269 arrivals in 2015 to one death for every 51 arrivals, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) (LINK).

My brief morning encounter in Palermo with those preparing to protest Salvini’s policies and those of other like-minded anti-migrant proponents was a painful reminder of the opposing visions that exist within the 28-member European Union.

Europe has yet to address the downsides of globalization that are threatening job security, turbo-charging inequality and fuelling populism. This, in turn, is adding to the ranks of racist and other groups that champion narrow notions of “them-versus-us” nationalism. (LINK)

Refugees rescued in international waters off the coast of Libya. (Photo: UNHCR)

At the same time, there are millions of Europeans who know all too well that the anti-migrant narrative capitalizes on a vacuum of political and moral leadership in the upper echelons of the EU.  In cities and villages across Europe, committed citizens and local officials challenge the demonization and marginalization of those forced to flee. At the same time, they are working to mitigate the harm inherent in policies that treat refugees and other migrants as lesser human beings.

Historically, before the age of nationalism and nation-state sovereignty, people on the move usually did not have to worry about official papers such as passports. The Silk Road route, in operation from the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) to the 15th century, linked the Mediterranean with China. Silk Road travellers, such as Marco Polo, needed to understand the culture, climate, geography, political situation and a host of other factors to ensure a safe journey. Passports only became generally necessary after World War I.

Current forms of globalization that thrive with the ever-deeper integration of trade, communication networks, capital, goods and services, are antagonistic to the free movement of people, particularly if they are poor, culturally different, or fleeing to hold on to their lives.

More walls than before

More an administrative than a physical wall, EU frontiers contrast significantly with the US-Mexican border, long a source of tension and headlines. Elsewhere, there are more border walls than before ranging from Israel’s West Bank Barrier to the six-meter high ‘buffer’ fences of the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco. Border walls have grown from 15 in the 1990s to 70 today (LINK).

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 brought to an end decades of division and accelerated the end to the Cold War and the days of the “Iron Curtain”. The border walls of today have a different kind of notoriety: once you crossed the Berlin Wall you were feted and not in danger of being incarcerated or sent back.

More walls have translated into a higher mortality rate. As reported by AP in 2018, 56,800 people died or disappeared while crossing an international border between 2014 and 2018 (LINK). The same trend is evident in Europe where the odds of dying while crossing the Mediterranean have increased.  This can be attributed to the determination of Brussels and various state capitals to maintain deterrence measures that prioritize blocking the arrival of asylum seekers and others over the steep human cost of EU policies.

Criminalized Deterrence

Eighty-five percent of the global refugee population is hosted in low-income countries neighbouring crisis situations, such as Turkey in relation to Syria, or Pakistan with Afghanistan, but a ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality has shaped EU policy for some time.  Efforts to strengthen measures to deter human arrivals from outside gained momentum after Europe’s so-called migrant crisis when the number of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq quadrupled between 2013 and 2015. The flow of forcibly displaced people seeking refuge in 2015 exposed serious flaws in the EU’s asylum system.  Since then, these flaws have become even more pronounced.

Lack of solidarity among European states combined with measures to impede and criminalize asylum seekers, but also humanitarians struggling to save human beings in the Mediterranean, have given rise to policies and practices that further imperil lives. Ostensibly designed to disrupt smugglers, these policies are, in reality, cynical ‘let-them-die’ deterrence measures. They feed the anti-migrant narrative as part of far-right political agendas at odds with international law and humanitarian norms.

Refugees rescued by Italian Coast Guard arriving in Sicily. (Photo: UN)

An open abuse of international law

EU deterrence measures include its 2016 deal with Turkey to obstruct migrant flows into the Eastern Mediterranean.  With one of the shortest maritime routes to Europe blocked, the EU made a deal (2017) with Libya in exchange for financial and other support to beef up the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) to restrict trans-Mediterranean migration.

According to studies by Amnesty International and other groups, the LCG routinely interdict people headed to Europe. These individuals are then re-located to horrific Detention Centres where torture, rape and sexual exploitation are the norm. Detainees are also subjected to slave-trade commerce and extortion rackets linked to feuding Libyan authorities. (LINK) The return of at-risk people to Libya is in contravention of international refugee law that prohibits the refoulement or forced return of individuals to places of persecution. This practice also runs foul of international maritime law that requires the rescue of those in distress on the high seas.

In 2014, Italy’s Mare Nostrum air and naval rescue programme that saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean was replaced by the EU Triton-Frontex border control operation. Soon afterwards, various non-governmental search and rescue (SAR) operations emerged to provide a lifeline to flimsy craft in distress and over-loaded with would-be refugees. This included the SOS Méditerranée, a coalition of German, French, Italian and Swiss Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams working on the Aquarius (See MSF story & video) that has rescued or assisted more than 80,000 people in the Mediterranean since 2015. (LINK)

Detained refugees in Libya. (Photo: IOM)

Other privately funded rescue ships included the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Sea Watch, Sea Eye, and Proactiva OpenArms. All of these and other life-saving operations are no longer able to function in the Mediterranean given a sustained campaign of sabotage and obstruction. In June 2018, Italy and Malta closed their ports to rescue vessels. In December, the Aquarius was blocked from leaving the port of Marseille.

Zeid Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking in September 2017, noted that EU plans could not disguise the fact that its core concern was stopping Sub-Saharan migrants from reaching Europe. (LINK)  The general absence of legal opportunities enabling non-Europeans to lodge asylum claims or apply for residency permits drives individuals into the hands of smugglers. Yet, as noted by MSF President Joanne Liu in 2017, the EU-Italy-Libya arrangement is feeding an abusive criminal system that treats people as commodities to be exploited. (LINK)

In many ways, Europe is allowing the Mediterranean to be used as a deep blue burial chamber for those seeking to escape torture and other threats or embarking on a journey that risks abuse, suffering and premature death. If lives are to be saved, then Europe urgently needs to reform its policies so that the right to life is prioritized above all other considerations. And in this manner, too, will once again deliver on its international protection obligations.

Norah Niland is a co-founder of United Against Inhumanity, an emerging global movement concerned with war-related atrocities and erosion of the international asylum system. A Geneva-based NGO, it has launched a ‘Call to Action’ demanding an end to the policies and practices that prevent people fleeing for their lives from reaching a place of refuge.  European citizens can use their vote in upcoming European and other parliamentary elections to assert the necessity of humane asylum policies. This article draws on an earlier version published on the UAI website. 

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