21 June, 2014

Europe and the refugees

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Category: Asylum seekers, Council of Europe, Europe, European Action Day, Refugees
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boat3Written by Johanna Luther

Blog post about the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly activities on refugee issues and furthermore a focus on the individual view on refugees in society

When, with 72 other people, Bilal Yacoub Idris boarded a little vessel on the shores of Tripoli to flee from the growing riots against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, he might have expected a lot, but probably not that 15 days later he would find himself only 160 kilometres east of Tripoli as one of only 9 survivors of the whole trip.

Later, this incident gained notoriety as the story of the “left-to-die boat”, a small rubber dinghy with sub-Saharan refugees on it, young men, women and even two babies, on its way to Lampedusa but “lost” for more than two weeks in the Mediterranean, a sea that is known as being one of the busiest and best monitored ones in the world. In fact, the marine authorities – Libyan, Italian and the Maltese Coast Guard, NATO, FRONTEX and even maritime vessels, be they private, commercial or military were clearly informed and aware of this boat in need but nevertheless neither helped nor rescued it.

After this total failure to intervene on the part of the different authorities, the Council of Europe published a detailed report about this tragedy, broaching the issue of who was responsible for the loss of these 63 lives in March 2011, including furthermore a series of recommendations of how to reduce the likelihood of similar tragedies in the future.

Today, more than three years after this catastrophe, there are still people dying in the Mediterranean Sea attempting  to escape the suffering and death in their home country, as the cases from October 2013 or even more recently May 2014 show, where again hundreds of people lost their lives because nobody rescued them.

Therefore the Council of Europe  considers it to be very important to focus again on this topic and the result is a report called “The “left to die boat”: actions and reactions”, which will be discussed next Tuesday (24 June 2014) during the summer session of the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg.
In the report it is clearly acknowledged that important efforts have been undertaken, particularly concerning Italy, but that nevertheless “a number of concerns remain and lessons still need to be learnt and acted upon” and the synergies of the whole of Europe “should still work towards a zero tolerance approach to lives lost at sea by filling the gaps in the legal framework, policies and practices of rescue at sea and disembarkation.”

Furthermore the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons identifies with this report a “number of concrete measures which should be taken by the Member States in order to prevent communication and responsibility gaps in rescue operations at sea in the future” and highlights the “creation of safe legal channels for migration and sharing the responsibility for asylum seekers within Europe. “

It also points out concrete recommendations for the European Union, such as harmonising the common asylum standards and procedures, as well as for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), from which the Committee inter alia requires that all their assets are equipped with Global Maritime Distress and Safety Systems.  Furthermore, the rapporteur, Ms Tineke Strik, claims that the International Maritime Organisation should “step up its efforts to facilitate the disembarkation of persons rescued in the Mediterranean See” by elaborating a “regional memorandum of understanding on procedures”.

Briefly, the report demands first and foremost to “guarantee a safe journey to protection” and secondly to show “further solidarity with third world countries by giving more refugees access to resettlements or temporary reception programmes”.

All these recommendations are without any doubt right and need to be implemented, but to determine the whole complexity of the topic, the reasons and structures that generate a system that wilfully desists from helping human beings in need is not only the result of an institutional failure, it is also very strongly influenced by an aspect which the Council of Europe’s report admittedly does not cover – the individual view on refugees and asylum seekers and European society’s willingness to help those in need.

SYRIA-CONFLICT-REFUGEEOf course you would probably only very rarely find somebody who clearly says “I hate refugees” but what we have in the end is a system which spreads institutional hate against people who ask for help and refuge.  This must come from somewhere and the explanation for this ostensible antagonism is based on the well-known phenomenon that people are very willing to help until it comes to the point where they are personally involved.

An easier example is the necessity to fight against climate change – many may agree that we need more “green” energy, but nobody wants a wind turbine in their own garden.  Nevertheless the stakes are very different when it is about humans fleeing from death and war and asking for help.

Initially many people agree that these refugees deserve help. When for example the first pictures of the destroyed cities of Syria, of the corpses and the millions of desperate people in the refugee camps, reached Europe, indeed people wanted their governments to help, and many donated their own money.

But letting these people cross the border into our own countries to escape these horrible circumstances? No, sorry.

People are scared of the unknown, and may even think these strangers will destroy their beloved home because of their different background but at the same time are ignorant of the possibility that it might be also difficult for the refugees to understand and learn from this new culture and that it does not make it easier when people encounter them with scepticism and antipathy.

refugee camp1 (1)

That is the reason why people protest against new asylum centres in their town even though the asylum seekers are not even there yet and they neither know their history nor what difficulties they may have had to overcome. We must not forget that nobody chooses to be a refugee. These people all had to survive horrible situations – they lost their home, their jobs, their friends and families, their whole lives and now are again often faced with refusal and even hate.

And perhaps this is the real scandal –it was no one person’s fault that the people on this little ship had to die in the Mediterranean, but an institutional one. However the roots that make this institutional aberration possible are based in society, in every person that says “of course I want to help, but please not next to my door….”

It seems to be impossible to flee from a war in Africa with nothing left but your life and reach the borders of Europe, but nevertheless people succeed. So compared to this – how difficult can it be then for the European countries and its citizens, who have always been so proud of their values of human rights and democracy, to give these people a new chance?


1 Comment

  1. Alex

    It’s all about fear. People are scared of what they don’t know. And it scares me that these events even happen in Europe.. that people seem to have forgotten their own history. That’s sad. But it’s in the human’s genes to hate what they don’t know and what might grab some of their wealth. I also argued about that topic and how seeing the world and meeting other cultures could help prevent this behavior in the future.. http://tripsu.it/travel_against_racism do you think the same?


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