Asylum in Europe — a mirage across the water

Twenty-five refugees have just suffocated in the engine room of a boat bound for Italy. Their deaths are not merely another episode in the decades-old refugee crisis along Europe’s southern coasts, but are part of the European strategy for deterring asylum-seekers.

Published on 3 August 2011 at 15:05

The Mediterranean is a mass grave. Since the start of the year, 1,820 people have died in it. They were boat people on their way to Europe, and they died of thirst on the water, drowned in high seas or off Lampedusa, froze out in the cold of Europe’s refugee policy.

The island of Lampedusa is a life raft in the Mediterranean for those fleeing their homes. Many never reach it; and for those who do, it’s not much help. They are sent packing again. Most of the refugees are shipped back immediately to where they came from. The part of the EU’s refugee policy that works best is, in fact, the repatriation policy. The opportunity to resurrect old agreements, which can be quickly re-signed with the new governments in North Africa, has the foreign and interior ministers of EU countries congratulating themselves. Repatriation agreements are agreements that fall under the motto ‘Out of sight, out of mind’.

A great deal of money is paid out to ensure that the ‘asylum’ works out to be right where the asylum-seekers come from, and one doesn’t worry too much about what happens to the deportees afterwards. Putting on the robes of Pontius Pilate, one washes one’s hands of guilt.

The weird routine of death on the Mediterranean

Europe protects the borders, but not the refugees. Those who die are victims of a failure to offer assistance. And so 25 young people have just suffocated on the engine exhaust of a boat on their way from Libya to Italy. Death on the Mediterranean has become a haunting routine, accepted as a fate that cannot be escaped. Europe accepts those deaths in the Mediterranean, which the Romans called Mare Nostrum, fatalistically, out of fear that offering help will attract even more refugees. Help is considered as an encouragement to flee. That’s why no support ships are sent out by the navy to rescue those on the leaky boats; that’s why there are no European assistance and reception programmes. Death on the Mediterranean is, like it or not, part of a deterrence strategy.

Frontex, the European agency that coordinates member states’ actions along the external borders, is responsible for intercepting refugees, but not for helping them. The Frontex patrols on air and land force the refugees to take ever more dangerous routes to avoid them. The paper of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which has just turned 60, has grown brittle. And the promise of the European Union to be a space for freedom, security and justice applies only to the European peoples.

Absurdity is an EU strategy

When the German refugee aid organization Pro Asyl was founded 25 years ago, most refugees were arriving from Eastern Europe. They were fleeing socialist dictatorships or wars in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, and they applied for asylum in Germany. In the words of the Pro Aysl chairman Juergen Micksch, the refugees were ‘harbingers’ of the impending collapse of the Soviet bloc. The situation today is similar. The displaced migrants from the south are the messengers of political, cultural and social upheaval. The EU member states, however, are treating the States in and after their upheavals the same way they did before the turmoil.

The first negotiations held with the new regimes were to manoeuvre them towards repatriation agreements.

Are these really the most pressing interests of European democracies? Is this the picture the Arab Spring is to make of the EU and its democracy: a great and exclusive happening, sufficient unto itself?

What is happening out there in the Mediterranean every day began exactly twenty years ago, when, in August 1991, refugees from Albania landed by boat in southern Italy. In the streets of Bari, they were chased down by soldiers and detained in the sports stadium. There was barely any bread and water, not even for women and children. An entire state fell into a panic. Military units set out to patrol the Adriatic Sea to intercept refugees already out on the water. At the time, Italy’s response was considered lunacy. Yet it’s from that madness that the EU’s strategy has grown.

Europe must stop trying to put up a new Iron Curtain. It must again offer protection to the persecuted and hold out a fighting chance to migrants. Europe without humanity is no Europe.

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