By Josh Makalintal
Aug 18, 2015
“In a world that is ever more digitally connected, each of us has the power and responsibility to inspire our fellow human beings to act to help others and create a more humane world.”
– Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, on World Humanitarian Day 2015
The continuing catastrophe
Over 2300 have already died attempting to reach Europe through the Mediterranean sea so far this year, with the latest atrocity happening last weekend when 49 people suffocated to death on an overcrowded boat.
Political persecution, armed conflict and economic pressures are just some of the leading causes of fleeing. Forcibly displaced people have no other choice but to leave everything behind to pursue journeys that begin with hope, but often end in sorrow – and the six o’clock news.
News reports surrounding these events are abundant and have no prospect of declining. Most people wanting to seek asylum depart from northern African coasts – notably Libya – before crossing the Med, where smuggling operations are plentiful and mostly let off by government control. These routes are highly life-threatening and expensive, forcing the desperate to pay thousands of euros to deceitful smugglers with no guarantee. With every passing day that Europe continues its inaction, traffickers will keep on exploiting the vulnerable and profit from their despair.
Whether or not you support open borders, you have to agree that this abuse and loss of life must end.
Why don’t they just fly?
Knowing the life-threatening risks of crossing the Med, it certainly begs the question of why these people don’t fly. Refugees usually have to sell all of their assets and undergo some risk to obtain enough money to venture off perilous journeys, so why won’t they just buy a direct flight to any European city? Plane tickets can amount to as low as €140 (e.g. Tunis – Rome). They are affordable, fast and above all, secure. Any rational person would take this option. But when they do attempt to reach the check-in counter at the airport, they are denied entry to the departure gates.
This is due to EU Directive 2001/51/EC, which gives member states the power to basically let transport carriers (airlines, boat lines, etc.) determine whether or not someone is a legitimate refugee or an irregular migrant. But here’s the catch: when carriers are believed to be transporting undocumented individuals, they may be susceptible to sanctions.
Swedish academic Prof. Hans Rosling explains the whole issue in this brief informative video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YO0IRsfrPQ4
“Every airline and boat line that brings a person without the proper documents for entry has to pay all the costs for returning that person back to their country of origin.”
This is what gives commercial airlines an incentive not to allow people to board, for fear of financial penalties. Though the directive explicitly exempts legitimate refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the EU has nevertheless relinquished their responsibility to determine who is a refugee or not through this Directive and has effectively given it to air carriers – or plainly, the check-in counter staff at the airport.
In practice, according to Rosling:
“What is happening is that no one can board without a visa. So it is this directive that is the reason for so many refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.”
An immanent inequity
Imposing sanctions on private transport companies as a mechanism to prevent irregular migration has unjust consequences for asylum-seekers. The practice itself is furthermore a violation of the principle of non-refoulement manifested under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which forbids the returning refugees to their country of origin when the risk of being persecuted is active. It is also commensurate to an infringement against the freedom of movement under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the right to leave one’s country and seek asylum to another state.
It is also futile; even if carrier staff – who are non-state agents – are the ones engaging in this practice, the states (whose flag the airline is carrying) are nevertheless responsible for their actions under international law. It is irresponsible for member states to shift this critical responsibility. The directive and other related measures should be abolished and replaced by a more flexible mechanism which gives some leeway for refugees to be able to travel by plane.
Another factor that contributes to the mess is the intrinsic inequality of passports. EU citizens enjoy the advantage of being allowed to travel to more than 150 countries just because of their citizenship. Most migrants are deprived of such privileges. Their qualifications to enjoy the ‘visa-free’ freedom of movement depend highly on what nationality is stated on their passports. Syrians dwindle their options to only 39 countries, while Afghans suffer the most with their limited options of 28 countries. These people come from nations that have generated the most number of refugees in recent history, and this can make one conclude that the more imperative it is for one to flee their country, the harder it is to do so.
‘Not All Passports Are Created Equal, As This Map Will Tell You’ (The Huffington Post)
How to turn the tide?
In order to enhance the EU’s migration policy and to curb the systematic injustices, the Union has to reform its Visa Code. Visa documents are a kind of pre-frontier control, and currently, the EU imposes strict visa restrictions on citizens from conflict-ridden countries that produce a lot of refugees. Abolishing visa restrictions for people fleeing countries plagued by conflict would be too formidable and unrealistic. A more practical yet ambitious solution would be to revise the code and open the door to the use of humanitarian visas. These types of visas are to be given as a better legal alternative to ensure a more secure way to access a country for people in genuine need of protection, instead of resorting to dangerous and irregular routes.
It is highly beneficial for Europe to have a uniform migration policy. The Union must accept the reality that the massive movements will not stop, and setting up a fortress is not a sustainable solution. A coherent quota set-up based on a fair distribution system should be realized, in addition to funding refugee processing centers in transit countries in northern Africa and the Middle East for cogent monitoring of the movement of people. These measures would be efficient in deterring risky journeys and control the migration flow.
Upholding a humanitarian responsibility
European unification has freed the continent from the scourge of inhumanity. It has enabled the enrichment of cultures around the continent and the recognition of each European identity, making everyone a part of the project. This historic achievement must develop into something more; Europe must go beyond and start taking unprecedented courses of action to establish itself as a true global leader.
Promoting global justice, the protection of human rights and the prevention of civil conflicts must be at the forefront of European diplomacy. We live in desperate times, and to solve this large-scale humanitarian crisis in a rapidly globalizing world, we need to take extraordinary measures and at the same time maintain our duty to protect the sanctity of every person’s dignity.