A Conversation with Tineke Strik
Guest post by Karolina S. Follis. Karolina teaches in the Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion at Lancaster University. Her research concerns the European border regime and she is the author of Building Fortress Europe: The Polish-Ukrainian Frontier.
Tineke Strik is a Dutch Senator for the Green Party and a member of the Dutch national delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), where she serves on the the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons and is the Chairperson of the Sub-committee on Detention. She is also assistant professor of Migration Law at the Centre for Migration Law of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 2011-2012 she conducted the PACE inquiry into the case of the migrant boat which lost power on its way from Libya to Lampedusa. In spite of distress calls, the 72 passengers were left to die over the course of a two week drift, with only 9 survivors living to tell the story.
This interview was conducted on April 9, during the Spring Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. It is part of my ongoing research, where I ask how European organizations and civil society respond to the recent migrant boat disasters off the coasts of southern European states. Senator Strik’s work shows that the existing mechanism of Council of Europe parliamentary inquiries affords certain possibilities of intervening into the relevant European policies. Beyond that, her insights help reflect on the practices and methods of conducting parliamentary inquiries, and how they compare to academic research.
KSF: You served as the Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on the notorious 2011 case of the boat that was left to die on the Mediterranean Sea. The result of your inquiry was the report Lives Lost in the Mediterranean: Who is Responsible? You are now completing a follow up report on this case. On behalf of the PACE Migration Committee you have also worked on other issues such as readmission agreements, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and situation in places of detention in Greece. How do you decide which issues to take up in your parliamentary work?
TS: That’s an interesting question, how these things go. I am very interested in the news when it concerns refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe, so I follow important NGOs, the UNHCR and other human rights organizations, and when they come up regularly with certain topics then I can say to the Committee, well, we really do have to get into this situation. For instance, we went to Greece visiting the detention center in the Evros region and the fence with Turkey as part of the work we did as an ad hoc committee assessing the situation in the southern Member States of the Council of Europe. We said a few years ago already, well, there are so many people trying to reach European territory and arrive at the Southern states’ borders, that it would be good to take a look at how these different Member States of the Council of Europe deal with this issue. Maybe they could learn from each other, or they could share best practices, or maybe we can show what are the risks, and what are the risks of breaching migrants’ human rights. Therefore we went to Turkey, we went to Greece, to Malta and we now really would like to go to Spain in order to see how Spain is co-operating with Morocco, dealing with people who manage to reach Melilla and Ceuta. Because I am well aware of the risks people face on the move, I know where to focus when I follow the news. But of course it’s not only the news. When I visit these countries, I always arrange meetings with people who are working there in the field, in order to be informed quite directly on the spot by people who try to improve the policies on the ground, who meet the asylum seekers and who work in the detention centers. That gives an awful lot of information which you can’t get by other means.
KSF: What happens in the course of an international parliamentary inquiry? I am curious of your reflections on the methodology of such reports.
TS: I am quite aware that I have to use my time very effectively. Maybe I can just give a few examples of how this works. When we went to Morocco it was for a formal exchange of views and so I knew from the program that we would meet several official organizations, but also UNHCR, IOM, etc. And I had the feeling that we have to talk to them also outside of the official program, because I thought that they might have some more information than they would be able to produce in this formal exchange of views in the presence of all the authorities and officials. And that really worked out very well. So we wanted to speak to these two key organizations. But beforehand I also met with people in Germany, and there are some German churches which are very active in assisting migrants in Morocco, and I said that I would like to get in touch with them. So I managed to arrange that before I went to Morocco via contacts with people who were working in the field. So we talked with the churches, with self-organized groups of migrants and, well, we knew them because of just talking and writing and asking “do you know someone in the field? Who did you meet when you went to Morocco? Who is reliable? Who can be informative?” And this is the way it worked, actually.
KSF: You are also an academic, a legal scholar. But the interactions you describe resemble the kinds of things anthropologists and other social scientists might do while conducting field research.
TS: Yes, the snowball method! As legal scholars, we are not used to doing it in this way, but of course we also do a lot of empirical research, so you also look a lot into footnotes of reports to see who can give some more information, and so on. I use my legal expertise, I think, when analyzing the reports put out by NGOs and I think, oh yes, I must focus on this issue, or that issue. So while conducting an inquiry, I prepare also on the content. What to ask? What to find out from the people I talk to?
KSF: Do you ever encounter problems of access? Churches, NGOs must be eager to meet with you as a representative of the Parliamentary Assembly. What about the authorities?
TS: Well, Lives Lost in the Mediterranean Sea is a very good example of that of course. On the one hand, I went to Rome and the Italian officials were very prepared to cooperate with me. They showed me everything, they sent me transcripts of communication that they had with the Ministry of Defense, they gave me presentations on how rescue at sea works, they took me on board to sea, to show me really what happens when a distress signal comes in. The same goes for Malta. So when you are there, talking to the officials, I think they are quite eager to create some understanding of how they work. So that was ok. But when it comes to NATO, where I tried to get the information of who the helicopter was [i.e., the helicopter which approached and then abandoned the boat in distress], or the vessel that just decided not to go to the rescue, they were really very reluctant. They referred me back to the Member States, and they gave me inconsistent answers. That was quite frustrating and all their answers show the attitude that can be summed up as “please don’t bother us, we don’t have anything to do with this.”
TS: What I think is strange is that International Maritime Organization, who are supposed to assist Member States with complying with maritime law , that they were not very informative. And the Member States, they were also very reluctant. Some said “we didn’t receive your letters,” other said, “they landed on the wrong desk” and in the end they said, “we did not receive distress messages,” or they said, “no, were not in the area [where the boat was drifting],” but they did not say where they were. So they just limited their answers to the minimum, I would say.
KSF: Still, they had to respond in some manner.
TS: Yes. Some did. They had to. But what I would have liked to have seen is that there would have been some national members of parliament in these Member States who have more competences than I have as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. They could have really asked for certain information confidentially or not, or start a national parliamentary inquiry and so on. Maybe this will still happen in the future, when we get some kind of indication which Member States would have been involved. I think also members of parliament need to have the beginning of evidence before they start such a procedure.
KSF: The question of evidence is interesting. As rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly you don’t have actual investigative powers. Isn’t it only based on the good will of the partners that rapporteurs are able to obtain information?
TS: That’s true. And we must hope that organizations and countries will not take the risk to be blamed and shamed. Reputations could be at stake. This is actually what you hope for. That they appear to be prepared to cooperate, to show their willingness, to show that they do care for whatever has happened.
KSF: One of the things I am interested in is comparing the role of someone like you with the role of an academic researcher. Many of us in academia are also deeply interested in the experiences and problems of migrants and refugees, but an official rapporteur can go where many researchers could not.
TS: That is true. The doors are open for us. I mean, if we want to go there, we can go there, most of the time anyway. You generally get appointments with everyone you want. Again, that was interesting with NATO. At first they did not want to receive me. Then I said, “ok, we are going to invite you for a hearing in Paris.” Then they said, “no, no, we would rather meet you at our headquarters in Brussels.” We finally met and this of course had to do with the reputation again. They could not be seen as completely unwilling to cooperate.
KSF: Many migration-related issues are politically very sensitive. The Lives Lost report is a prime example of that. And yet with the type of inquiries that you have conducted as rapporteur, the concept of fact-finding implies total neutrality. How do you negotiate the tension between the need to be neutral and the politics in the Assembly?
TS: In the Lives Lost report I was really after the facts. Getting the facts on the table. I presented myself also as a neutral actor. As a kind of vehicle to reconstruct the story. So there was no beginning of allegations, and I was very cautious not to accuse anyone. And I think also this is why the Italians were very much willing to cooperate with me. And actually they would like to show that they were completely innocent, that they did what they could. This is also what we tried to do with NATO. We didn’t begin by accusing them. That came afterwards as a response to their completely reluctant attitude. So I think that’s important. But after the report was completed and the discussion began in the Assembly, it became really politicized. For instance Spain. I had mentioned Spain in the report [the possibility that a Spanish vessel might have been in the area of the drifting boat], as this was mentioned literally in the transcript of the conversation between the Italian MRCC and the Ministry of Defense, which could see it on its radar system. Spain was furious. And then they started to disqualify me, and the report and saying, “this is Council of Europe unworthy,” dismissing the quality of this report, and so on. Well, the only thing that you can do then is not let yourself be provoked and go into that debate, and just stay with the facts instead. And so I said, ok, provide me with different information. We didn’t get it from you. But please, I’m still open to further, additional information, if you have it.
KSF: In your experience and reflection on the work you have done on this and other inquiries, what makes for a successful PACE report?
TS: It depends what kind of success you want to have.
KSF: I imagine that a successful report is one that gets traction, gets reported by the media, that has a life after the Assembly approves it.
TS: Yes, the Lives Lost report really had a life after adoption and maybe that was because this was a bit of a ‘whodunit’ story. Also the way we wrote it was to be as neutral and as factual as possible, but from the point of view of the migrants: what happened at sea, what happened with these people between the time they saw the helicopter and the other vessel. What did we hear from the survivors, what they told us. And the people who read it, they really become involved. The story really strikes most people, maybe because it was reconstructed so factually. And I think this was the value of this report. You cannot just leave it there and go on with your life. It does something with you. You start thinking about it. Too many of the reports that we have here are more or less repeating more abstract formulations. Sometimes they are not precise enough, so that you don’t know exactly what they are about. Then you can’t have a sharp analysis, and then you also can’t have sharp recommendations, what you can do with it. So I think a successful report starts with facts, it must also be of course relevant, so it depends on the topic you choose. And we must think before what is the added value. We already have a lot of reports, maybe other actors are also busy with the same topic. What could add to the whole discussion on a certain topic? I always try to be as precise as possible and that is sometimes difficult because then you might also get opponents. Because if you are a bit woolly, a bit abstract then it doesn’t hurt anyone, you know? But at the same time you have to risk that it doesn’t achieve anything. But if you want to be precise you have to substantiate it very well. Your facts must be really substantiated. They must be correct, completely correct.
KSF: What do you wish for this work you are doing? One thing is that the media pick it up, that other people who compile reports pick it up, where else do you want it to go?
TS: Well, indeed I hope that the report can also contribute to the work of other actors, NGOs, European Parliament, European Commission. Of course I also hope that the Committee of Ministers takes it on the agenda. I would like to shake up the Council of Europe as an organization, to be aware and to be active on maritime migration. Not only the Human Rights Commissioner, he is already active on this issue of course, but also the Committee of Ministers, they should also have the courage to address this topic. There are controversies regarding maritime migration between Member States and I want them to discuss them, to try and solve their disputes.
KSF: Right now you are completing a follow-up report where you look into the actions and reactions to the left-to-die boat case, and into European responses to migrant deaths at sea more broadly. What are your own hopes for this new report?
TS: I did not yet lose all the hope that in the end someone will come forward and say “I was in that helicopter.” Or “I was standing on the vessel looking through my binoculars at these people.” There must be somewhere some satellite information, some images that can show which vessels were there in the vicinity. But until now we have not received that information but again, I hope that now with this follow up we enlarge the chance that this information will emerge. We also come up with recommendations, we say, look, actually the problems are not solved at all. Look at the catastrophes that we saw in October near Lampedusa, look at pushbacks in Greece. So we come up with recommendations to the EU, to the European Parliament, to the Member States. And Member States really must work on a common solution. We just heard again that Italy again has rescued thousands of migrants. At a certain moment this might also stop, if other Member States do not also step in and show support and solidarity. So I hope that this will contribute to the continuation of the debate and the awareness that a solution has to be found.
KSF: And that is a good note on which to finish, thank you very much for this conversation.
For more on this topic, see Karolina's post The Politics of Life at Sea: A Note on Sources and Alessandro Spena's The Injustice of Criminalizing Irregular Immigration.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Follis KS (2014) The Doors are Open to Us: On Parliamentary Inquiries and the Plight of Europe’s Migrants. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/doors-are-open-to-us/ (accessed [date]).