Has the Lampedusa disaster marked a turning point in EU immigration policy?

The tragic boat accident off Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 has helped to highlight the structural problems of the EU's immigration policy. According to this, immigration to the EU is seen primarily as a security problem. The EU and the Member States should take the opportunity to tackle the problem from several angles, and show responsibility and solidarity towards the people who are forced to flee. It writes Patricia Schneider, researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, Hamburg.

When EU refugee policy is discussed, it is primarily issues relating to the reception or rejection of refugees that are given space. Underlying causes, economic opportunities and questions about the safety of migrants have been overshadowed. Does the report released by the European Commission on 4 December from the Task Force Mediterranean working group mark a turning point in EU immigration policy, or are they empty words for maintaining a facade of responsibility and solidarity?

On board the capsized boat, off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, were more than 500 refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia. Of these, only 155 people survived. The death toll was one of the highest measured for migrant accidents at sea. The accident aroused strong feelings around the world. The next accident, which occurred on October 12, cost the lives of another 24 people. The media gathering pressured politicians to deal with the issue, also at EU level. Instead of merely lamenting that this type of accident occurs, demands were made for fundamental changes.

The first priority in the Lampedusa tragedy should have been to prevent fatal accidents at sea. According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 20,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean. Greece is a clear example of a country pursuing an immigration policy with structural problems. Tougher border controls have been introduced at Greece's land borders, including fences and more border patrols. In order to stop the refugees who instead tried to enter Greece by sea, the border police have in many cases resorted to illegal means. The refugees were deported from Europe without first being registered, and without being able to take advantage of the protection everyone who travels in a non-seaworthy boat is entitled to under international law. Refugees are often ill-treated and unable to seek refuge in EU member states. Most refugees come from Syria (including Afghanistan, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, Chad, Somalia, Tunisia, Eritrea and Pakistan).

The Greek asylum and migration system is dependent on the support of the EU and Frontex (EU Border Agency). Refugees need to be able to enter EU territory and have the right to move on to countries such as Sweden or Germany. EU member states should make it easier to obtain visas, make it easier for families to reunite, and provide humanitarian visas to refugees. This would mean that refugees receive protection and an opportunity to create a decent life. Greco-Turkish cooperation on push-backs (mass deportation of refugee groups without taking into account individual cases) of refugees should also be stopped, as it is contrary to international law. PRO ASYL demands "the preservation of human rights in European border control, and a humane and supportive reception system in the EU."

The 4-page report on Task Force Mediterranean's work, released on XNUMX December, represents the latest and most comprehensive proposals at European level on the issue. The working group was formed by the Council of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) shortly after the accident outside Lampedusa. Will the report be a turning point and does it support the above recommendations?

The working group proposes a common approach for the entire Mediterranean area, and cooperation with the countries from which the refugees come. This is a sensible suggestion. If the problems are reduced where they arise, fewer people will fall victim to human traffickers. The cooperation would include countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, as well as regional campaigns. The focus is on strengthening the countries' capacity to handle migration, exchanging information on migrants between the countries, combating smuggling and trafficking, and information campaigns. However, this is not the result of changes in the EU's immigration policy. Instead, it is a further step towards shifting responsibility for border control outside the EU, and will force refugees to seek even more dangerous and expensive ways to get to Europe. The report advocates efforts to enable refugees to return to their home countries.

The working group emphasizes the need to strengthen EU border controls. The member states and Frontex are rewarded in the report for their "commendable work, which has led to the rescue of thousands of people", while at the same time claiming that Frontex needs increased financial support. Frontex will also receive support from EUROSUR, a European border surveillance system, which has been in use since 2 December 2013. Many argue that border surveillance can save the lives of refugees. However, the surveillance system has been criticized for its high costs, and for not helping to improve the situation of refugees. Border guards have an obligation to inform the National Coast Guard if a boat is in distress at sea, but have no obligation to arrange sea rescue.

The working group also advocates a more efficient movement of refugees within the EU. In 2012, only 12 countries, including Sweden and Germany, received the 4950 migrants to which migrants were relocated. The proposal is now to increase this quota, as well as for more countries to accept refugees. This will be paid for by the EU Asylum and Migration Fund. However, the working group does not mention that the fund's budget has actually been reduced, which means that one must take a step backwards, instead of forwards, in this matter.

It is stated that a more stable asylum and migration system must be built in the EU. This could be interpreted as dealing with the current poor treatment of refugees, the rejection of migrants and the shortcomings in registration. However, this has not been mentioned in the report.

According to the report, information on opportunities for legal migration is available for the countries from which the refugees come and travel. This is a thin argument, because the possibilities for legal migration are so limited. The report addresses opportunities for e.g. seasonal workers, students, researchers to obtain a residence permit. This is not enough when there are refugee flows from countries in crisis. The working group also proposes that the European Commission should develop guidelines for humanitarian visas and conduct a study on the possibility of handling cases outside the EU. However, these two proposals concern the five-year programs that will begin in 2015. The report's cautious approach is not enough - the situation we have today requires immediate action.

That push-backs occur is not even addressed. The few constructive proposals are not concrete enough. The report gives the impression that the EU's strategy is still to deter migrants as much as possible, and to facilitate the detection of illegal migration and the return of migrants. It is a big mistake not to start by solving the underlying causes, the problems with the safety of refugees and examining what economic opportunities there are. Courage, responsibility and solidarity are needed. Strengthening Europe's walls and making the fort even more impregnable is not a solution.

Dr. Patricia Schneider
Senior Researcher
Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, Hamburg
Translation: Jenny Nordman

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