Last month, 19 migrants suffocated to death on a crowded, ill-equipped boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to Europe. The instance is hardly unique – the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report states that more than 800 people have died this year in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean, and it is estimated that over 20,000 deaths have occurred in this manner over the last 20 years.
The July incident has evoked memories of the 2013 disaster, which had claimed the lives of over 350 African migrants in a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa. The death toll had shocked European observers and politicians, and moved Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa’s mayor, to public tears. In response, Italy implemented a new programme to actively monitor and rescue migrants attempting the perilous journey. Previously, the government had focused on pushing migrant boats back to Libya.
However, Italy stands alone as other European Union (EU) members such as Germany are continuing to insist that these migrants are not their responsibility.
Herein lies the fundamental problem: a world in which states are the most important political authority, individuals are considered the responsibility of whichever state has granted them citizenship. For many of the migrants seeking to escape war and violence by reaching Europe, their own states are clearly not fulfilling this responsibility, bringing up difficult questions over which entity should assume the neglected duty of care. International law assigns it primarily to other states, though only to the extent that the refugee in question is already on their territory. This leaves asylum seekers on the Mediterranean Sea in a legally tenuous situation. If they have not reached European jurisdiction, national governments do not consider themselves to be violating the principle of non-refoulement (returning a refugee to a country where they face danger) by pushing migrant boats back to North Africa without determining whether they are eligible for refugee status and protection. Too often, under international law, refugees become the responsibility of the states neighbouring the one they are fleeing. In cases of intense or drawn-out conflict, such as Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo, this places a disproportionately high burden on neighbouring states, which often lack the resources and capacity to handle large inflows of refugees.
EU law is no exception on this point. Instead of developing a coordinated response to the ever-growing number of migrants attempting to enter Europe, many member states have been content to maintain the so-called Dublin system, whereby refugees will be deported back to whichever EU member state they first entered if they attempt to leave it. This provides a certain degree of insulation from African asylum claims to the wealthier states, such as Germany, the UK, and the Scandinavian countries, leaving countries like Greece, Italy and Spain – the ones hardest-hit by the economic crisis – to try to prevent future disasters like Lampedusa on their own. Furthermore, many EU countries do not allow applications for asylum to be made at their embassies abroad, forcing many of those seeking refuge in Europe to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean through unofficial channels.
Of course, not all migrants attempting to start a new life in Europe are eligible for protection as refugees, and not everyone considers persecution or danger as legitimate grounds for refugee status in another country. The EU member states refusing to reform the Dublin system argue that taking in more refugees than their electorates are comfortable with would be undemocratic. While this may be true, it does not absolve the EU of any responsibility for preventing migrants’ deaths on its doorstep.
Given the EU’s semi-supranational character, it is in fact better-placed than most to develop a more effective, less state-centric approach to honouring its international obligations to transnational refugees, as encouraging comments on this issue by the European Commission’s President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker would suggest. In his words, “We cannot have common borders if only some have to bear the cost – it is a question of solidarity.”
Katharina Obermeier is an intern with Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. She is currently pursuing an MPhil degree in International Relations at the University of Oxford.
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