Refugees are a Shared Responsibility

A record number of refugees have arrived by boat in southern Europe this summer. Norway should voice its support for a common European solution to the issue of boat migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

A boat carrying asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
Photo: NHCR/L.Boldrini

Last year this would have been front-page news, but now each new arrival – or each refugee boat that is lost at sea – is just one more in a series. Estimates suggest that more than 100,000 refugees have arrived by boat so far this year. This is a dramatic figure. The previous record was 63,000 for the whole of 2011, which was the year the Arab Spring brought about unrest in the region.

The journey across the Mediterranean is extremely perilous. On 15 September, IOM announced that over 700 people may have perished in two separate shipwrecks – one outside Malta and one off the coast of Libya. These two accidents are not only extremely serious in themselves, but they also highlight several of the challenges facing us as a result of the recent increase in the number of refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean by boat.

One problem is the apparent lack of a general overview of the situation on the part of European border guards, who are still trying to clarify exactly what happened last week. This despite stepped-up surveillance after the EU’s new surveillance system (EUROSUR) came into effect nearly a year ago.

Another unresolved question concerns the role of so-called people smugglers and speculations that they deliberately dispatch refugees in the smallest and most unseaworthy vessels in order to avoid detection early on, alternatively to “trigger” search-and-rescue operations.

Italy’s responsibility

Italy and Spain in particular report strong increases in the flow of refugees from North Africa this summer. Italy experienced at close hand the two largest shipwrecks outside Lampedusa last year. As a result, the Italian authorities have greatly boosted Italy’s search-and-rescue capabilities. But Italy cannot bear this burden alone, not only because Europe has a shared responsibility, but also because it creates a “weak point” in the EU’s shared border control, which has a self-reinforcing effect on the flow of refugees through this route.

Even though it may be a while before refugees dare to embark on a journey all the way to Norway, Norway, as a member of the Schengen area, should nevertheless make it clear that the refugee issue is a shared responsibility. This applies both to the migrants’ hazardous journeys to Europe and to how Europe thereafter takes them in and processes their applications for asylum and residence.

A humanitarian responsibility for the EU and for Norway

The Italian interior minister Angelino Alfano put it very clearly this spring: unless other countries lend their assistance, Italy will simply allow the refugees to continue their journeys to the rest of Europe. This would contravene the Dublin II Regulation, which provides that a refugee must remain in the country of initial arrival until the processing of his or her asylum application has been completed. This regulation in particular puts a disproportionately heavy burden on countries in Southern Europe, and in doing so is exposing the weaknesses in the project to implement common rules for European border controls and asylum policies.

The increase in the flow of refugees coincides with the first year during which the EU’s ambitious new border surveillance system, EUROSUR, has been adopted in EU member states in Southern and Eastern Europe. On 1 December 2014 the system will be implemented in the remaining Schengen countries, including Norway.

What the surveillance cameras fail to see

Migrants who set out to cross the Mediterranean are a diverse group. Fleeing from financial hardship does not give a person the right to international protection, but neither do all the people who are fleeing conflict, oppression and insecurity fulfil the criteria to be granted asylum in Europe.

In any event, it is impossible for surveillance cameras to determine how an individual boat refugee should be categorised; surveillance technology cannot distinguish between legitimate asylum seekers and economic migrants seeking a better future. Such an assessment has to be made by competent authorities on land.

Because a boat may be carrying people who are entitled to protection, any return of a boat of migrants to a port in North Africa may constitute a breach of fundamental rights of asylum. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found Italy guilty in just such a case, after refugees whom Italy had “pushed-back” to Libya took legal action.

More surveillance

The EUROSUR system has been planned since 2008, but following the large shipwrecks of last autumn it was quickly presented as a key tool for dealing with the problems in the Mediterranean. The main purposes of EUROSUR are to reduce the numbers of migrants who enter the EU illegally and to increase the EU’s internal security by keeping criminal networks out.

In addition, EUROSUR states as an aim that more and better-coordinated surveillance of the EU’s external borders in the Mediterranean may mean that distress signals are detected early, making it easier to achieve successful search-and-rescue operations. However, the plight of the boat refugees may also provide a basis for conducting border-control operations far beyond the EU’s borders, on the pretext of preventing loss of life at sea. If refugees who find themselves in distress at sea are rescued close to the coast of North Africa, for example, it is easier to defend the practice of returning them to the closest safe harbour.


The limitations of surveillance

There is enormous “demand” for escape from intolerable living conditions and for entry into Europe. At the same time, the demand for cheap unofficial labour in Europe is so great that migrants will most likely continue to come here for the foreseeable future. Border surveillance helps provide a better overview of the situation, and an improved ability to respond to emergencies, but it is extremely uncertain whether it has any effect on reducing the flow of migrants.

Pressure on the “sea route” into Europe is also so great because for many it is the only practical way of getting in to Europe, and it is only when refugees reach European territory that they can seek asylum. The increased use of this sea route should be taken into consideration when examining how the EU and Schengen countries can best implement their shared responsibilities for our external borders and asylum policies.


This text was published in Norwegian as an Op Ed on 16 Sep 2014: Flyktningene er et felles ansvar

Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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