verb: [no object] s
noun: a sp
This month’s Ranter is Ryan Swan
Amidst the ongoing refugee/migrant crisis, we are witnessing the European Union (EU) making the vulnerable defenceless in a bid to fortify its own borders. This is undermining its global reputation as a human rights defender.
The prevailing narrative is that the European resettlement programme is a project in humanitarian benevolence, headed by France and Germany, with ‘pragmatist’ and ‘centrist’ credentials. Chancellor Merkel is presiding over an “open door policy” that is facilitating an “influx” of migrants. President Macron is in favour of improving the situation for those seeking security and safety, given that he has called for “more humanity” to be shown to them, and declared that reform of the asylum system is a priority for him.
So the story goes. Europe is helping the displaced by welcoming them into European society with one hand, and beating off the traffickers exploiting these people with the other. Presenting this at face value, however, distorts the reality of the situation at the European borders for those attempting to enter Europe.
In March this year, the EU and Turkey came to an agreement on ending ‘irregular migration’ from Turkey to the EU. The key aim here was to return ‘irregular migrants’ who had arrived in Greece from Turkey. However, more tellingly, the agreement also covers asylum seekers whom the EU deems to have ‘inadmissible’ applications. This refers to those who ‘legally’ have a ‘first country of asylum’ and a ‘safe third country’ to be sent to. In the context of this deal, Turkey is the country that would receive the deportees.
The crucial premise here is that the EU assumed – or needed the public to believe – that Turkey was both willing and able to treat returnees according to international law. With nothing to indicate that either of those criteria would be met, the EU’s border agency Frontex then took part in the ‘practical implementation’ of sea and air deportations with over 1000 ‘escort officers’ involved.
Less than two weeks after this agreement, Amnesty International reported that Turkey had been ’rounding up and expelling groups of around 100 Syrian men, women and children to Syria on a near-daily basis since mid-January’, and found it to be a clear and unequivocal violation of EU, Turkish and International law. It is difficult to believe that a global political power such as the EU was ignorant of such atrocious behaviour on Turkey’s part.
Completing the picture here is the EU agenda shortly before the March agreement, where European leaders seriously considered collective expulsions of irregular migrants to Turkey, a procedure that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had to helpfully remind them was illegal.
The EU response to smugglers bringing people across the Mediterranean Sea and into its borders was to implement the joint EU state operation European Union Navy Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med, also known as Operation Sofia), which aimed to counter smugglers through military means. This operation started in 2015. Predictably, those involved in the operation have hailed it a success, highlighting the combating of traffickers and the saving of migrants. The confidence gained by EU leaders from this has widened their military ambitions in the region greatly. Germany and Italy have gone so far as to push for EU forces to control the Libya-Niger border in order to prevent people moving through Libya into Europe.
However, the singing of praises for a military response to the crisis has since been categorically muted by the EU political elite. On the 12th of July, the UK House of Lords published an inquiry which found that Operation Sofia had actually increased the numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean due to its strategy of sinking boats to reduce smuggling. On the same day, Frontex said that less seaworthy and overcrowded vessels are now being used to transport migrants from Libya, resulting in more people drowning.
Despite issuing censure towards Operation Sofia, some revealing information about Frontex itself has recently been unearthed. After the termination of Italy’s year-long Operation Mare Nostrum, on 31st October 2014, Frontex began Operation Triton, performing largely the same task. Frontex, however, made some serious and fundamental changes to its patrol policy in the Mediterranean.
The first was the decision to patrol only to within thirty miles of Italy’s coast – around twelve hours travel-time from where most shipwrecks occur, near Libya. The second was its position on distress calls. Incredibly, Frontex has urged that it not be contacted if a distress call is outwith its very limited patrol area. It begs the question: could the EU’s border agency be any more brazen in its disdain for the lives of non-Europeans?
Not content with the targeting of migrants directly, the EU has turned its sights on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Libya and along its coast. Recently, a draft ‘code of conduct’ for NGOs, proposed by Italy, was released. This draft code bans the entry of NGOs into Libya and its waters, and forbids these organisations from using signals to help migrants. NGO vessels must ensure they are able to be tracked. NGOs must also reveal their sources of funding for operations in which they are assisting migrants. The EU Commission voted in favour of the Italian plan and then, in a display of political cognitive dissonance, noted the “noble” work of the NGOs in the region.
Removing NGOs will have a direct impact upon those seeking refuge in Europe. But there may be yet more insidious implications attached to this. The EU’s approach to ‘migration control’ is increasingly based upon a militarised approach and it seems to be moving towards the build-up near – and in – neighbouring states, such as Libya, of military forces representing the EU. A policy of removing NGOs from Libya will remove the very impartial observers who would report and record how those military forces are operating (and behaving). The EU’s new ‘pragmatism’ when it comes to migration policy may be taking a troubling new turn: more scope and less accountability.
Ryan Swan is a freelance translator and writer. His main interests are asylum and refugee studies, works by Syrian revolutionary thinkers, and political Islam. He is on Twitter at: @Ryan0Swan