Dangerous Alliances on Migration

European nations that once promoted human rights are slinking away from these obligations and forming agreements with some third parties that have terrible records on human rights. “The European Union’s migration control policy relies on fortification and deterrence, contributing to massive human rights violations beyond its borders,” explains Lena Riemer, a 2018-2019 Fox International Fellow based at Yale’s MacMillan Center. “Creation of migrant slave markets in Northern Africa, life-threatening attempts to cross border fences into Spanish territory as well as more than 2,000 reported deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone can be traced back in part to the EU’s externalization of migration policy, in force since 2010 and becoming more extreme in 2015.” Opposition to migration is fueling populist demands for tough border policies regardless of horrific conditions, desperation and increasing deaths. Still, the numbers of migrants fleeing war, persecution and climate disasters are climbing worldwide, reports the United Nations. Riemer urges humane border control with comprehensive policies that address the root causes. – YaleGlobal

Dangerous Alliances on Migration

Cooperation between the EU and third parties on migration control and detention is contributing to human rights violations
Lena Riemer
Thursday, December 13, 2018

Rescue hazard: A ship in the Mediterranean rescues migrants while others are held in the Tarik al-Matar detention center near the Libyan capital of Tripoli

NEW HAVEN: The European Union’s migration-control policy relies on fortification and deterrence, contributing to massive human rights violations beyond its borders. EU funding supports detention centers in Turkey, Libya, Morocco, Niger and other countries, some unknown, as part of a global strategy.

“We are like a box of matches, we don’t sleep, we have diseases, we lack food, we didn’t shower for months,” reads one detainee’s statement to United Nations workers. “We will all die if not saved from this place.” Held in Tarik al-Matar detention center, he is among 9,300 individuals who entered Libyan territory irregularly. Libyan law allows indefinite detention of such migrants in violation of international law. Individuals, incarcerated for years without trial, are mistreated and deprived of basic rights. Once caught in such centers, few people have the chance to leave voluntarily and return to their home countries, with reports of many sold as slaves or used to extort money from desperate families.

European nations have long promoted human rights, and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, in force since 1953, marked a major step in codifying these. Yet recent shifts in migration policies keep pace with negative migration-control role models, including the United States, Israel and Australia.

Creation of migrant slave markets in Northern Africa, life-threatening attempts to cross border fences into Spanish territory as well as more than 2,000 reported deaths in the Mediterranean this year alone can be traced back in part to the EU’s externalization of migration policy, in force since 2010 and becoming more extreme in 2015. Conditions have deteriorated for migrants and asylum seekers, especially those from Africa, trying to reach European shores.

People’s reasons for migrating to Europe are manifold and often multilayered, varying from escaping persecution, violence, poverty to searching for a better life. What the vast majority of migrants have in common is that few regular pathways are available, forcing them on dangerous routes. For example, less than 1 percent of the global refugees have resettled. Few possibilities are available for asylum seekers to claim protection as embassies do not provide for such a possibility and border posts often deny access to such procedures. Those who do not meet the narrow “refugee” definition enjoy little protection and risk their lives, relying on dangerous routes and the services of human smugglers.

Cooperation, but not legally binding: More than 160 nations signed the Global Compact for Migration to ensure safe and orderly processes, but not the United States, Australia, Austria, Poland, Hungary and a few others (Source: UN)

The European Union shares responsibility for this dire situation with its policy of closing outer borders accompanied by an intensified cooperation with transit states and states of origin to curb the numbers of arrivals. Tough policies fostered the emergence of migration detention centers and slave markets in Northern Africa. The Libyan Coast Guard — with support from the EU— has cracked down on boats of refugees and migrants trying to leave Libyan soil for Europe, incarcerating the intercepted. Coast guard methods include pushback of boats within Libya’s territorial waters and excessive use of force, allegedly causing deaths during rescue operations.

The European Union is determined to prevent migrants from reaching EU territory – even if this means equipping authoritarian regimes and warlords with advanced technology, weapons and promises of cooperation in other areas. This policy is also shifting towards use of subtle threats to withdraw aid if the partner country refuses to cooperate. For example, the Malta Declaration of 2017 established a cooperation agreement between the European Union and Libya, including promise of financial aid, coast guard training and technical support, all in exchange for preventing migrants from accessing Europe. Human rights advocates fiercely criticized the European Union for providing direct support to a state known for failing to respect migrants’ rights. Another example sparking uproar: a migration-related aid payment of €100 million to Sudan, despite reports of severe mistreatment of migrants.

The policy of intensified cooperation took off in 2015 when the EU introduced its Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, described as “an example of international cooperation at its best – taking account of the interests and objectives of all involved: EU, partner countries and migrants themselves.” With the goal of preventing irregular migration, the EU invested in multilateral and bilateral partnerships, addressing the return of migrants and information exchange. Cooperation in the field of migration is not a new phenomenon, but the European Union carried this policy to unprecedented levels. Some agreements are not publicly available, and a complete overview of the scope and methods remains unknown.

Complementing the new migration policy were orders preventing private rescue vessels from operating in the Mediterranean. This strategy started with Italy’s attempt to limit private rescue efforts by obliging involved non-governmental organizations to sign a code of conduct constraining their rights and independence. This was followed by Europe’s Mediterranean states refusing entry to private rescue vessels. This policy led to rescue ships desperately circling the Mediterranean in search of safe ports instead of assisting vessels in distress. Closing ports to people in urgent need of assistance is a violation of international law. EU authorities more recently confiscate rescue vessels and their equipment, threatening criminal prosecution.

Such policies diminish the European Union’s credibility of being the world’s guardian of human rights and undermine fundamental values such as the respect for human dignity, equality and the rule of law. For the European Union and other states around the globe to meet their self-imposed human rights standards, revisions in migration policies are required. Concretely, safe and secure passages and a binding global minimum human rights standard for migrants and asylum seekers are required. Current legal instruments are either insufficient or voluntary soft-law instruments. The Global Compact on Migration is a step in the right direction with monitoring to uphold a self-given standard of international law.

As long as a legal pathway exists for less than 1 percent of asylum seekers worldwide for resettlement, other ways for claiming protection for people fleeing persecution must be established to reduce the massive death toll in the Mediterranean. Secure passage does not mean the abolishment of external border controls nor does it imply opening borders and providing global free movement. However, to grant protection to those fleeing persecution, in accordance with international obligations, the EU must create real asylum application procedures in a safe environment. Depriving the persecuted of such possibilities with externalization policies violates international and European law – states are violating rules they established themselves.

Research conducted by the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration shows that a combination of safe and secure passage and granting more visas and work opportunities for qualified specialists would reduce migration pressures. Cooperating with oppressive authoritarian regimes to control migration with a history of human rights violations only encourages more people to flee persecution. Each cooperation agreement with third-party states should be reassessed to ensure human rights standards are met.

A comprehensive and just global migration policy must address root causes. Development aid for education, infrastructure and job creation are more useful for migration control than bleak detention centers. Aid must be linked to human rights protections. International cooperation, exchange and trade must develop into a framework of equal partners. All of these suggestions require rethinking current migration policies, shifting from fortification and deterrence towards global, equitable policies based on human rights and cooperation of equal partners.

Lena Riemer is a Fox International Fellow at Yale’s MacMillan Center and a jurist. She is pursuing her PhD at Freie University Berlin in the field of international migration and asylum law. Her research interests lie mainly in the area of international criminal law, migration and asylum and human rights, and she provides legal counseling for asylum seekers.

This article was posted December 11, 2018.

Copyright © 2018 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center

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