In recent months, a debate has been brewing inside Italy and across the European Union about NGOs that operate in the Mediterranean Sea between the coasts of Sicily and Libya to conduct search and rescue operations (SAR) to save refugees fleeing Africa - where at least 1300 people have drowned attempting the dangerous journey so far this year, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants project.
The dispute surrounding SARs started in December last year, after a Financial Times news report alleged that the EU’s border agency, Frontex, had ‘accused charities operating in the Mediterranean of colluding with people smugglers’. The news report, also suggested that Frontex believes the lights used by rescue boats act ‘as a beam for the migrants’.
Frontex was quick to distance itself from the news story and deny that their memos ever suggested that the NGOs were ‘colluding with people smugglers’. But the agency’s denial has not stopped Italian prosecutors and politicians, far-right activists, EU leaders, as well as Fabrice Leggerie, the director of Frontex, from continuing to accuse NGOs like Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, or Save the Children who have been operating in the Mediterranean, of playing a role in the refugee crisis.
The arguments currently being made against NGOs and their role in the refugee crisis are not only disingenuous, but according to Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch (HRW), are also a ‘damaging distraction from the real challenges and responsibilities facing not only Italy, but Europe as a whole’.
Sunderland, of course, is right – EU leaders and Italian politicians have avoided taking any responsibility for the current crisis in the Mediterranean or the nightmare situation unravelling inside and around Libya, where Sub-saharan migrants have been tortured, abused, killed and are now being sold into slavery in open markets.
While Italian prosecutors accuse NGO workers of colluding with smugglers, Italian politicians such as Interior Minister Marco Minniti have pushed and passed a series of laws making it more difficult for refugees to appeal rejected asylum cases as well as plans to build more detention centres to hold asylum seekers throughout the duration of their cases.
Although brief accommodations were made for Syrian refugees by some EU countries, especially Germany, after millions were displaced as a result of the deadly civil war in the country, the EU has opted to find any rationale, no matter how flimsy and untrue, to reject the claims of asylum seekers.
In March 2016, a leaked EU document was released which described EU plans to deport 80,000 or more Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan.
The leaked document spelled out how the EU planned to make aid packages to Afghanistan ‘migration sensitive’, meaning that aid would be contingent upon the Afghan government’s signing of the Joint Way Forward Agreement - which is illegal according to international law.
“The State Building Contract for EUR 200 million in preparation is intended to be made migration sensitive, probably through one indicator linking it to the government’s policy on migration and return and possibly to the implementation of the Joint Way Forward,” the document said.
Also within the leaked document, a narrative was introduced where Afghans seeking asylum in Europe were compartmentalised into groups where some were no longer called “refugees”, but referred to as “irregular” or “economic” migrants.
The downgrading of Afghans from ‘refugee’ to ‘migrant’ has allowed for the EU to circumvent international laws regarding the rights of refugees the world over. The change in narrative has loosened restrictions on EU deportations – allowing for quick and easy rejections of asylum cases of not just Afghans, but of Somalians and others as well.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Who is really responsible for deadly refugee journeys?’