Post by Marta Welander. Marta is a doctoral researcher and visiting lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Westminster and executive director of Refugee Rights Europe. In this blog, she reflects on the outcomes of the EU Summit in June 2018, and discusses the prospects for a humane European approach to asylum and migration.
The current state of affairs of the European asylum and migration reforms can perhaps be best described as a multi-layered web of both disparate and overlapping negotiations, numerous speculations, and the promotion of political agendas at national and regional levels. Where Europe might be headed in terms of asylum and migration is yet to be determined, but it is clear that the European Council conclusions adopted in June 2018, combined with national-level decisions, raise serious concerns regarding Europe’s ability to meet its obligations under international human rights law, to which they are signatories. Indeed, the prospects of a rights-based approach, which safeguards human security is looking bleaker than ever.
Indeed, the Conclusions contain an array of disconcerting provisions. In paragraph three, the Council expresses its intent to step up its support to the Libyan Coastguard as a measure to intensify its efforts stopping smugglers operating out of Libya. It further states that ‘All vessels operating in the Mediterranean must respect the applicable laws and not obstruct operations of the Libya Coastguard.’ The trouble with this is that the conditions to which individuals are returned in Libya when ‘rescued’ by the Libyan Coastguard are inhumane at best, and often deadly. There are no doubts about the atrocities unfolding on Libyan soil, including rape, extortion, torture and killings, as well as reports of slave auctions.
Furthermore, the Council reemphasises its intention, in paragraph four, to ‘fully implement the EU-Turkey Statement, prevent new crossings from Turkey and bring the flows to a halt.’ Heavily criticised by human rights organisations, this deal violates international prohibitions on collective expulsion and ‘blanket returns’ by allowing Greece to return any so-called ‘irregular migrants’ to Turkey. According to Amnesty International ‘the premise on which the deal was constructed – namely that Turkey is a safe place for refugees – was flawed.’
Amnesty is amongst the groups who have highlighted the shortcomings of Turkey’s asylum system and the hardship refugees may face there, arguing that the EU-Turkey Statement is illegal and ‘unconscionable’. The organisation has documented cases where Syrian asylum-seekers were forcibly returned to Turkey without being given a chance to appeal against this return, which indeed is in breach of international law. Others have reportedly been returned by Turkey to countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan where they face serious risks of human rights violations. The deal has also meant that thousands are left in limbo, trapped on the Greek islands. Refugee Rights Europe interviewed several hundred displaced people on the island of Chios in 2017, and found an island at breaking point, with untreated health problems, squalid living conditions and increased tensions between desperate individuals. Intentions to continue working through the framework of the EU-Turkey Statement, and to ‘fully implement’ it is therefore highly disconcerting.
On a related note, the Council expresses in the fifth paragraph of the Conclusions, the idea of setting up ‘disembarkation platforms’ where those saved in search and rescue operations would be brought. As such, individuals saved at sea would not necessarily be brought to Europe to file their asylum claim, but possibly to countries in northern Africa, where they would be assessed. While it is not clear whether North African states would be willing or able to set up such platforms, there are once again serious concerns about whether human rights and safety would be assured, and whether asylum claims would be assessed in an adequate manner as per international obligations. Any such disembarkation platforms would have to provide adequate support to victims of trafficking, sexual violence and other traumatic experience, and it is unclear how the actors running such facilities would be held accountable. Disembarkation platforms would also need to safeguard the principle of non-refoulement, which requires trained staff, interpreters, legal aid professionals, and as proposed by the Council of Europe, ‘the possibility for the review of decisions by an independent body.’
The sixth paragraph introduces the idea of ‘controlled centres’ which are to be set up by member states ‘on a voluntary basis’ and in which rapid processing would take place, distinguishing between ‘irregular migrants, who will be returned, and those in need of international protection.’ This immediately raises concerns that such centres would operate along the same lines as the ‘hot spots approach’ in Italy and elsewhere, with an often unlawful and arbitrary selection process in which an unlawful ‘pre-evaluation’ of the validity of individuals’ asylum claims by police appear to be made upon the grounds of a person’s nationality, and where excessive police force, arbitrary detention and collective expulsions have been reported.
In parallel with the EU summit and its Conclusions, there is an ongoing array of national-level and bi-lateral processes and decisions seeking national-level ‘solutions’ within the wider European framework. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has been navigating a serious standoff and potential government crisis over asylum policy with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer. Horst Seehofer, who made a deeply unsavoury comment triumphing that his 69th birthday had coincided with the deportation of 69 Afghans from Germany, has been pushing his so-called ‘master plan’ which includes the idea of transit centres at the German-Austrian border where asylum-seekers would be held should they have registered in another European country. This proposal raised serious concerns that asylum-seekers would be kept in concentration camp-like facilities and was therefore countered with a somewhat less controversial counter-proposal by the government. The ‘master plan’ moreover includes provisions of tougher sanctions against asylum-seekers, the introduction of ‘one-stop’ centres, which would register, assess and deport asylum-seekers at fast pace, as well as strengthened border protection through the reinforcement of FRONTEX and through ‘disembarkation platforms’ in North Africa. Once again, all such components raise serious concerns about human security, the right to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement as contained within international conventions.
Tragically, while such discursive and de facto developments unfold at both the European Union and national levels, the human realities on the ground are perhaps bleaker than ever, with drownings in the Mediterranean reportedly having skyrocketed due to the obstructions against search and rescue vessels. Little to no concern is given to the thousands of asylum-seekers who remain trapped on the Greek islands in unacceptable living conditions causing increasing tensions and violent brawls, those experiencing violence, trafficking and sexual slavery on European soil, or those displaced persons who are hiding away in the woodlands of Calais and Dunkirk and in parks and streets of Brussels and Paris. The prospects for a human rights-based European approach to migration thus seem miserably unlikely. Ultimately, how much European leaders are willing to compromise on international human rights law obligations to protect the external and internal borders of Fortress Europe, remains a vital question.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Welander, M. (2018) Migration, Human Rights and Fortress Europe: How Far Will European Leaders Go to Protect the EU’s Borders?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/07/migration-human (Accessed [date]).