Rights on the Edge

One gets the impression that the aim of the EU's common asylum policy is not to protect refugees, but to protect Europe from refugees, says Karl Kopp in his commentary

Rather than relieving the burden on the poor regions where the refugees come from, the member states are in the process of shifting responsibility to them. Humanity and the right to asylum are left by the wayside.

Day after day, people risk their lives in the attempt to get across the Mediterranean or the Atlantic to Europe. Thousands die because they embark on their voyage in overloaded and non-seaworthy vessels. According to figures from the Spanish authorities, around 6,000 refugees and migrants have died on the way from West Africa to the Canary Islands alone.

Fortress Europe fencing itself off

The high number of deaths is primarily related to the fact that the escape routes are becoming longer and longer and more and more dangerous: Fortress Europe is fencing itself off more and more efficiently.

Anyone who would truly like to prevent the deaths happening before the gateways to Europe must consider ways to enable refugees and migrants to reach the territory of the EU legally and without danger.

The edges of Europe are witnessing dramatic scenes which show that the EU countries are prepared to renounce fundamental human rights. In July 2006, three people were shot and killed in Melilla as they attempted to cross the fences into Europe. The details of the deaths on the border between Spain and Morocco have yet to be cleared up.

Acting unlawfully

Greece remains under suspicion of having thrown refugees into the sea in September 2006. At least six people died, according to statements by survivors, because officials of the Greek coastguard pushed around 40 people they picked up near the island of Chios back into the sea.

At the EU's external eastern borders, virtually unnoticed by the public, Chechen refugees have been sent from Slovakia via Ukrainian internment camps back into the Russian Federation, the very state persecuting them. In March 2006, UNHCR reported serial deportations.

Chechens seeking protection who had managed to reach EU territory in Slovakia were refused access to asylum procedures – contrary to the law. Instead, they were sent back to Ukraine and deported from there to the Russian Federation.

Forward defence

Since mid-2006, Frontex, the European border guard agency, has been playing an important role in interception measures well ahead of the gateways to Europe.

Frontex operations catch boatloads of refugees whilst they are still in international waters and return them to African countries of transit or origin. Between August and December 2006, for example, 3,500 refugees and migrants were picked up in the Atlantic or close to the coast of West Africa in these "out of area" operations and sent back to Senegal and Mauritania (Frontex press release dated 19 December 2006).

The treatment meted out by the Frontex border guards association on the high seas to people in need of protection is described tersely by Frontex director Colonel Ilkka Laitinen: "They aren't refugees, they're illegal migrants" (Standard, 21 December 2006).

New bouncers

In a cynical division of labour, non-EU countries like Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Ukraine, Turkey, etc., are given the job of "bouncer" at the doors to "Fortress Europe".

Take Morocco, for example: more than 400 sub-Saharan refugees and migrants were arrested between Christmas 2006 and the New Year and released on the Algerian border. There were cases of severe ill-treatment by Algerian and Moroccan security forces. Several women were raped during the police operation. A pregnant woman lost her baby.

These violations of human rights form part of a chain of violence against people seeking protection in Morocco – and Europe remains silent and looks away.

Loss of credibility

The European Union is losing its credibility in the international debate about refugees and human rights. A community of 27 democracies must find a different response than military defence operations, the outsourcing of protection for refugees, and ongoing violations of human rights.

Pro Asyl believes that the upholding of human rights must have the highest priority in the EU: these rights apply to all people fleeing or migrating. Refugees must be granted safe access to the territory of the EU and to a fair asylum procedure.

Any co-operation with non-EU countries which disregard human rights and fundamental freedoms must be ceased. Europe needs possibilities for legal immigration so that migrants are not forced to take dangerous routes. Otherwise, thousands of people will continue to die at the external borders of the EU. Anyone who wants seriously to tackle the causes of forced migration and flight needs to remove the structures which produce poverty and misery.

Subsidies and protectionism against Africa

One example is farm subsidies: Europe's farm subsidies destroy the markets on the African continent and thus generate poverty, hunger and fresh reasons for people to flee. These subsidies and protectionism against African products must be reduced.

Another example is the failed fisheries policy: fishermen in Senegal cannot survive on fishing any more because the highly subsidised fishing fleet of the EU states has largely emptied their waters of fish. Fishermen from Senegal are often left with no choice but to hire out or sell their boats and to embark on the dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands themselves.

Anyone wanting to alter the dramatic imbalance in the distribution of opportunities for life and development needs to advocate a different, fairer trade, agriculture and fisheries policy for the EU.

Karl Kopp

© Goethe-Institut 2007

Translated from the German by Andrew Sims


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