End Europe’s Shame: Open letter to the European Council

As the European Council is set to debate the European Union’s response to over 1,200 deaths in the Mediterranean within a week, we are writing to urge the EU and its Member States to take urgent measures to prevent further loss of life.

On 12 April 2015, 400 people fleeing Libya drowned when their vessel, bound for Italy, capsized off the Libyan coast. One week later, on 19 April, an estimated 800 people drowned along the same route. The victims’ names are to be added to the ever-growing murderous list of casualties at Europe’s borders.

These deaths are not inevitable, nor can responsibility be placed at the door of unscrupulous smugglers. It is time for the EU to recognise that they are the result of clear political choices. The EU and its member states cannot persist with policies aimed at sealing off borders, thereby pushing migrants and asylum seekers to take ever more dangerous routes and creating a market for smuggling rings. EU member states cannot continue to call for states south of the Mediterranean to take responsibility for refugees while themselves refusing to do so. While these policies continue, bodies will continue to wash up on Europe’s shores.

Tomorrow, as the European Council meets to define the future of its policy, it must seize the opportunity to prevent further loss of life at sea.

However, FIDH and AEDH are deeply concerned that the ten point-action plan presented at the emergency meeting of the Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council on 20 April, failed to address these human tragedies. Instead, it revealed a further set of measures focusing on securing EU borders, by reinforcing surveillance and increasing obstacles with the aim to prevent persons from attempting to enter the European Union. They include increasing the resources and assets allocated to the EU border control agency Frontex and extending its operational area, capturing and destroying boats used by smugglers and establishing a new return programme for irregular migrants who have reached the EU territory. The proposal to strengthen cooperation with non-EU countries, including those where human rights are systematically violated, in order to prevent migrants from leaving these countries and attaining the EU’s shores is of serious concern. Not only do further obstacles merely result in routes being displaced, but by contributing to preventing people leaving countries like Libya, where migrants and refugees are arbitrarily arrested and indefinitely detained, the EU and Member States violate their own obligations under European and international law and render themselves complicit in serious human rights violations.

Demonstrating a commitment to “avoiding such human tragedies happening again” [1], involves a radically different approach. As a first step, Member States must immediately establish an EU-wide search and rescue operation, on the model of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation, which ended in November 2014. States at the EU’s sea borders, like Italy and Greece, cannot be left to bear sole responsibility for saving lives. It has been repeatedly stressed, including by Frontex itself, that the newly established Operation Triton cannot replace such a search and rescue operation since its mandate is control and surveillance rather than saving lives.

But the EU must go further than this. Such an operation would be a plaster on an open wound of the EU’s own making. As repeatedly underlined by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency and the UN Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, one of the reasons for so many lost lives is that it is too difficult for people seeking protection to enter the EU using legal routes. Policies aimed at increasing barriers to mobility by strengthening of border surveillance and control operations, including through the EU agency Frontex, while restricting visas, have closed opportunities for safe access to the EU for refugees seeking international protection.

The majority of those embarking on the perilous journey across the sea from Libya to Italy are refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan, fleeing conflict and persecution, who have the right to seek and obtain asylum, under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. They must be able to claim their rights without risking their lives.

The EU must open legal channels that allow migrants to enter EU territory legally and safely. FIDH calls on Member States to facilitate the issuance of visas for humanitarian or asylum purposes and invest in policies to receive refugees, including by showing solidarity and reforming the Dublin II regulation, that puts a disproportionate responsibility on border states for the reception of asylum-seekers. It is intolerable that while 4 million people have fled Syria to the neighbouring countries since 2011, less than 3% have been given refuge in all 28 EU countries together.

Furthermore, as underlined by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Human Rights of Migrants and on Trafficking in Persons, it is only be enabling migrants and refugees to reach its territory legally that the EU will combat people smuggling networks and prevent exploitation.

We cannot continue in this infernal cycle of deaths, followed by expressions of grief and indignation, empty promises for reform, and yet more deaths. April 2015 must mark the beginning of a different face of European policy and an end to tragedies at sea.

The world will be looking to you on Thursday for the concrete demonstration of the EU’s founding values and recognition of the humanity of those seeking to reach its shores.

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