October 10, 2013
By Walter Mayr and Maximilian Popp
After over 180 African refugees died when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, Europe is debating its asylum policy with renewed vigor. Politicians are calling for the EU to distribute the burden more fairly.
She was already lying on the jetty on Lampedusa, seemingly lifeless among dozens of corpses. But then someone noticed she was still breathing. Instead of being placed in a zinc coffin like so many others, she was quickly airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Palermo.
It is still unclear whether the unidentified woman from Eritrea, who is about 20, can be saved. If she is, she will be one of about 150 survivors of a tragedy that unfolded at approximately 4 a.m. last Thursday near Isola dei Conigli, or Rabbit Island, off the coast of Lampedusa when a ship that had sailed from the Libyan city of Misrata with about 500 refugees on board caught fire and sank. At least 181 lost their lives within sight of Italy, which they viewed as a promised land. More than 100 are still believed missing, as divers and the Italian coast guard battle high seas and strong winds in their recovery effort
In tourism brochures, the tiny Mediterranean island, an EU outpost off the coast of Tunisia, highlights its “snow-white beaches, unspoiled nature and the crystal-clear sea filled with life.” But its advertising campaigns are aimed primarily at visitors who arrive at the island’s airport, spend a few days relaxing on the beach and then return home.
But since Lampedusa is easier to reach from Africa than the rest of Europe, refugees have become stranded — or have drowned — in the waters off the island for years. Even during last week’s disastrous night, another boat landed on the island, this one carrying 463 mostly Syrian refugees. The human traffickers often destroy their ships’ engines before reaching the coast. This makes them incapable of maneuvering the vessels, so that they are officially considered in distress and must be towed into port.
Authorities are questioning a 35-year-old Tunisian, who was arrested as the ship’s presumed captain, over what actually happened on board on Thursday morning, why a fire broke out and why the ship sank. The man had landed illegally on Lampedusa once before, on April 11 of this year, but was then sent back to Tunisia.
Calls to Reform the Dublin Regulation
Even before all the bodies had been recovered from the ship’s hull late last week, mourners, admonishers and agitators were making their voices heard. Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano, who helped draft an Italian-Libyan treaty allowing for patrols and measures to repatriate refugees at sea, began expressing his demands while visiting Lampedusa.
Standing among the bodies of refugees, Alfano said he hoped that “divine providence has led to this tragedy so that Europe will open its eyes.” He also called for urgent changes to the Dublin Regulation. According to Alfano, the convention demands “much too much” from those Mediterranean countries where refugees first set foot on European soil.
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, is also calling for a wider distribution of the burden, and characterized the refugee issue as a “problem for all EU member states.” Schulz argued that Italy should not be left alone with the task of coping with the massive influx of people from Africa and Asia.
The undiminished rush on the old continent is “not a question that has to be discussed by committees in Brussels. It is a question of solidarity within the Member States of the EU,” Schulz wrote in a press release published Thursday. He also characterized the way the EU is debating the issue as “horrifying.”
The EU amended the controversial 2003 Dublin Regulation in June, making it so that any refugee who reaches Europe can only apply for asylum in the EU country he or she enters first. The rule benefits Germany most of all because it is almost completely surrounded by other EU countries, making legal entry all but impossible for refugees. As a result, the world’s fourth-largest economy ranks only 11th in Europe when it comes to the number of asylum seekers it accepts in proportion to its population.
People from the world’s crisis areas are converging on the EU’s external borders, with primarily Africans heading for Italy, Chechens for Poland, and Syrians, Iranians and Iraqis for Greece. In Germany, on the other hand, the prevailing view is that refugees are someone else’s problem.
‘Serious Human Rights Problems’
The Dublin system was designed to force countries in Southern and Eastern Europe to effectively patrol their borders. In recent years, the EU has invested millions to prevent unwanted immigration. The measures have included deploying police units to the external borders, building fences and using satellite technology to monitor refugee routes.
But this hasn’t deterred the refugees. Thousands die en route, while those who make it and seek asylum are imposing a growing burden on the increasingly overwhelmed countries along the EU’s external borders. In Italy, more than one in three refugees is granted permission to stay, or more than in most other EU countries. But only a few of the immigrants find work and a place to say, while many others live on the street or in parks, where they lack medical care.
The Italian protection program SPRAR offers asylum seekers and refugees accommodations, language courses and counseling. But SPRAR can only accommodate 3,000 people, compared with an estimated 75,000 potential applicants. Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, has called the conditions “shocking” and notes that the “almost complete absence” of an asylum system in Italy has led to a “serious human rights problem.”
Asylum systems in other countries along the EU external border are also failing — if they exist at all. The Polish asylum process, for example, violates the guidelines of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Belgium Refugee Council wrote in a critical report. Families are sometimes separated and traumatized refugees left alone.
Refugees in Hungary have reportedly been locked into detention centers and in some cases even abused with clubs or irritant gases. Pregnant women have been kept in prison until their delivery dates. Such treatment has repeatedly led to hunger strikes in the past. In Greece, hundreds of refugees have been routinely abused in camps, in incidents the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has described as a human catastrophe.
Reports of such conditions have prompted many refugees to continue on to Central and Northern Europe. The German government, however, is invoking the Dublin Regulation and sending the refugees back to the countries where conditions are poor.
Calls for Change
Charities and organizations, such as Frankfurt-based Pro Asyl, have developed a joint concept to reform the European asylum system. Attorney Reinhard Marx, one of the authors of the memorandum, explains that the goal is not to eliminate border controls. Refugees would continue to be stopped and registered upon entering Europe, but they would be allowed to choose the EU country in which to ultimately apply for asylum.
Experts believe that this system would reduce the burden on countries like Italy. Many refugees would be attracted to countries in which they could live under relatively decent conditions, such as Germany. It would also eliminate incentives for human trafficking within Europe.
It is clear, European Parliament President Schulz said in his statement last week, that “behind this tragedy lies organized criminality and conflicts in our neighborhood. We must aggressively increase efforts to stop criminals, inside and outside of the EU, exploiting this human misery for profit.”
Most refugees today are dependent on traffickers if they aim to reach countries like Germany from the EU’s periphery. “The Dublin system is a job-creation scheme for human traffickers,” says Marx, the attorney. In the future, he adds, asylum seekers should be able to choose countries in which, for example, some of their compatriots are already living. Countries that accept larger numbers of refugees could also receive support from the EU’s Asylum and Migration Fund.
Could this idea appeal to German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich? Italian Interior Minister Alfano has requested that the refugee problem be placed on the agenda of a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday. “We will make our voices clearly heard in Europe,” says Alfano.The Italian government is also under pressure. In a provisional report for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe released on Wednesday, Rome’s policy is harshly criticized. Once again, the report reads, Italy is “ill prepared” for the surge of refugees and “irregular migrants may unofficially be encouraged to go up north and cross over the Italian border into other Schengen countries.” In this manner, European countries continue to shift the responsibility for refugees to one another.
Meanwhile, for those Somalis and Eritreans who had left the Libyan coast in the direction of Fortress Europe, and who died at 4 a.m. last Thursday, the Mediterranean has become a graveyard of dreams.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan