Monday, 7 October 2013

EUROPE: Lampedusa's disaster & EU Asylum Policy

After over 180 African refugees died when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, Europe is debating its asylum policy with renewed vigor. Politicians are calling for the EU to distribute the burden more fairly.
Lampedusa is an EU outpost off the coast of Tunisia, highlights its snow-white beaches, unspoiled nature and the crystal-clear sea filled with life. But since Lampedusa is easier to reach from Africa than the rest of Europe, refugees have become stranded -- or have drowned -- in the waters off the island for years. Even during last week's disastrous night, another boat landed on the island, this one carrying 463 mostly Syrian refugees.
Since 1999, more than 200,000 people from Africa and Asia have landed on the island fleeing civil wars, hunger and misery. It is estimated that 10,000 to 20,000 people have perished making their way to Lampedusa. This year, more refugees have arrived on the island than in any previous year. They come from Somalia, where criminal gangs spread terror and death each day, from Eritrea, where people have no future, and from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started as a dream but has since become a nightmare for many. Since January, 22,000 refugees have arrived on the coast of Lampedusa. The island has become a powerful symbol of the failure of the European Union's refugee policies.

The undiminished rush on the old continent is not a question that has to be discussed by committees in Brussels. It is a question of solidarity within the Member States of the EU. The EU first agreed to a common asylum and refugee policy in 1999 with the Amsterdam Treaty, but it has never worked. Europe has not become the "area of freedom, security and justice" pledged in the treaty, one in which every refugee, regardless of where in the EU he or she is, is guaranteed the same fair asylum procedure. Nor has the EU come through on the pledge that the disproportionate burdens faced by countries on Europe's borders would be fairly shared by other member states.

In practice, the policy had one thing in mind: taking in the smallest number of refugees flowing in from the south and the east as possible. The modus operandi has always been that European countries take care of themselves. Their only common position has been in fighting against those who want to come to Europe.

Now France and others EU member states are calling for a wider distribution of the burden, and characterized the refugee issue as a problem for all EU member states. But that would require a ''lift-face of the Dublin Convention''.

The EU amended the controversial 2003 Dublin Regulation in June, making it so that any refugee who reaches Europe can only apply for asylum in the EU country he or she enters first. The rule benefits most of the Northern EU States and Great Britain. People from the world's crisis areas are converging on the EU's external borders, with primarily Africans heading for Italy, Chechens for Poland, and Syrians, Iranians and Iraqis for Greece.

The Dublin system was designed to force countries in Southern and Eastern Europe to effectively patrol their borders. In recent years, the EU has invested millions to prevent unwanted immigration. The measures have included deploying police units to the external borders, building fences and using satellite technology to monitor refugee routes.

But this hasn't deterred the refugees. Thousands die en route, while those who make it and seek asylum are imposing a growing burden on the increasingly overwhelmed countries along the EU's external borders. In Italy, more than one in three refugees is granted permission to stay, or more than in most other EU countries. But only a few of the immigrants find work and a place to say, while many others live on the street or in parks, where they lack medical care.

Experts believe that this system would reduce the burden on countries like Italy. Many refugees would be attracted to countries in which they could live under relatively decent conditions. It would also eliminate incentives for human trafficking within Europe.

To be sure, Fortress Europe's walls are becoming less and less porous -- with radar and satellite controls in the Mediterranean Sea, for example -- but they still haven't stopped millions of people from fleeing the world's impoverished and war-ravaged nations. They sacrifice their family savings and risk their lives to get here. And for as long as these people have no future at home and can't even be certain they will survive the next day, they will continue to flee -- either to a place that is better or one that at least offers the prospect of a future.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP- Rescue Operation in Lampedusa after a boat of Refugees sank.