Europe is currently facing its worst modern refugee crisis. Culpability for that humanitarian disaster, says Amnesty International, lies squarely with the European Union.
Those trying to reach European shores include desperate migrants and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, all making a dangerous voyage across the waters from Libya to Italy and from Turkey to Greece and then walking across Europe. Many don’t make it, like Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy, whose lifeless body stirred the world if but for a moment.
According to “A perfect storm: The failure of European policies in the Central Mediterranean,” a new report released by Amnesty International, 2016 was the worst year for migrant deaths, but 2017 is shaping up to break that grim record.
Amnesty’s report pins the blame squarely on European Union policies, which they call “reckless.” The EU has tasked the Libyan coast guard with aiding search and rescue operations. Amnesty argues that pairing with Libya has not prevented departures or loss of life, but instead is “exposing refugees and migrants to even greater risks at sea and, when intercepted, to disembarkation back in Libya, where they face horrific conditions in detention, torture and rape.”
Meanwhile the passage to Europe has only gotten more precarious, the smugglers have only gotten more brazen, and the boats they use have never been more ill-equipped.
The rubber rafts setting sail from Libya these days are almost never expected to make it to Europe. They leave with no gas, no life preservers, and no means of communication on board. And with more people than ever before trying to leave, more people are suffering — and dying.
The numbers explain it best: 181,400 people traveled from North Africa to Italy in 2016. This year over 80,000 people have already made that treacherous voyage. That’s 14 percent higher than the same date in 2016. More than 2,000 people have died this summer alone.
The European Union’s response has been to work more closely with the Libyan coast guard. That, too, says the Amnesty report, is a tragedy in the making.
The route, it explains, is more terrifying than ever. And the solutions have only worsened the problem. Amnesty has some suggestions: Bring more European rescue boats to the coast of Libya and open more legal routes for migrants. Not everyone will like that solution — especially when Europe has spent the bulk of the last months considering means of repatriation and convincing Libya to shoulder more responsibility.
Amnesty collected stories from migrants. They tell a grim tale.
Amnesty’s study is based on interviews with migrants, academics, journalists, UN organizations, the coast guard of Italy, and European parliamentarians. Researchers visited the migrant receiving points at four Italian ports, spoke to FRONTEX, the for-hire coastal border patrol company, the Italian ministry of the interior, and Italian coast guard as well as non-governmental agencies working on search and rescue missions.
But it is the testimony of the migrants themselves that brings home the horror of the largest human displacement since the Second World War. It’s a nightmare that begins even before a migrant makes it to the Libyan coast.
Take part of the story of a 20-year-old Gambian, Abukafir, who told Amnesty:
It was December 2016. We left Agadez, in Niger, at 6am, six Toyotas together, driving very, very fast. We drove for 12 hours, without stopping, 27 people. We were chased. Five Toyotas were caught. The people on them were abandoned in the desert.
Amnesty International’s report explains that the incidents of death on the sea is almost directly correlated to the number of search and rescue missions out on the sea. Migrants began to die when Mare Nostrum, a search and rescue operation organized by the EU from October 2013 through the following October, was abruptly suspended because EU leaders believed the rescue ships were a “pull-factor” for migrants.
The idea that rescue ships are an enticement to refugees has floated through Europe off and on for several years.
In 2015, Lady Joyce Anelay, then a minister in the foreign office, told the press, “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean” as Britain believed such missions were “encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing.” But British authorities eventually backed away from that stance; it was too dangerous.
When Mare Nostrum stopped, migrants started to die. When the EU beefed up search and rescue missions, in the incidence of mortality dropped. The causality seemed clear.
This summer, the search and rescue missions have never been more necessary. In the two years since this crisis began in earnest, migrants have begun leaving under riskier and riskier conditions. Amnesty lists a number of reasons the death toll is ticking ever higher: the absence of satellite phones, boats leaving in poor weather and after dark, the use of flimsy rubber rather than wooden boats, and multiple boats launching simultaneously, making rescue difficult.
Boats are most easily rescued after having been spotted, or after issuing a distress signal, so the lack of a satellite phone is a significant problem. Worse still, the boats are leaving and barely making it beyond Libyan waters before they need assistance — that presents a problem and a challenge to Europeans trawling waters near Sicily, or in between.
The people leaving too, are leaving in worse shape. There are more women in late stage pregnancy. On board conditions are horrific worse. The story of Kwakese Junior, a Ghanaian man, illustrates.
I was so confused, very unwell and tired when I was rescued. My legs were swollen. We had our legs in water during the journey. I had a headache, all my body was aching. There was no food or water. It was so hot. We were jam-packed, stepping on each other. If you fall you cannot get up again. Nobody could sleep. Many were thirsty and hungry. Many were sick. Nobody had a phone. We were lost.
And Amnesty points out that European leaders have focused their attention on trying to dissuade people from leaving, rather than on search and rescue. Nine NGOs have stepped in to fill the voice and to try to help with search and rescue as the EU has backed away. But individual European countries are not thrilled by that idea. Last week, Italy floated the idea of blocking NGOs from using their harbors. It was overruled.
The system to address the migrant flow is broken
In early June, the New York Times ran a dramatic graphic study on migrants and in the Mediterranean. In that piece, the Times indicated that the NGO boats that have moved ever closer to the coast of Africa over the last three years may have actually encouraged flimsier boats, and riskier refugee voyages. Just last week, Italy announced it was overwhelmed by the number of migrants arriving, and wanted to close off ports to NGOs who go all the way to Libyan waters to make rescues. 11,000 refugees had arrived in the space of days.
Amnesty’s report challenges that idea. And even the New York Times report acknowledged ending NGO rescues was a potentially deadly choice.
In a video for France24, a journalist embedded herself on the NGO rescue ship Aquarius for 10 days. Her conclusion was very similar to that of Amnesty International. “If the NGOs are not there,” she said, “the immigrants will drown.”
One concern for Europe is the changing demographics of migrants. The European Council on Foreign Relations recently found only some 61 percent of migrants are not actually eligible for asylum. However, the ECFR report very specifically laid out that ending rescues was not the answer; instead it argues that Europe must open legal channels of migration in order to help close illegal channels.
But that’s not what’s happening currently. As Amnesty points out in this report, the Libyan coast guard is being trained to pick up the slack. It doesn't appear up to the job, and the consequences of failure are fatal.