In 2020, 1,754 people were reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean crossing.
In April, Danish authorities announced their intention to expel dozens of refugee children back to Syria following confirmation of plans to withdraw their temporary protection under the argument that the security situation had improved significantly in certain parts of Syria and that it was safe for them to return. As a result, hundreds of Syrian refugees are at risk of losing their residency permits, including at least 70 children.
That same month, The Guardian and Lost in Europe found that 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020. Most of them coming from Morocco, Algeria, Eritrea, Guinea, and Afghanistan. The equivalent to nearly 17 children a day. According to the data available, about one in six were younger than 15 years old. In 2020 alone, 5,768 children disappeared in 13 European countries. The investigation, with data on missing unaccompanied minors from EU members as well as Norway, Moldova, Switzerland and the UK, found the information provided was often inexistent, inconsistent, outdated or incomplete, meaning the true numbers of missing children could be much higher.
In 2015, the severity of the civil war in Syria and economic and political crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria forced millions of people to flee to neighbouring states and Europe. With the European Union (EU) lacking an effective mechanism to respond to, and share the burden of asylum claims, the quantity of refugees and migrants continued to rise to the point that more than 1 million people arrived in Europe that year. Consequently, the European Commission adopted an Action Plan and the European Agenda on Migration, providing measures to establish a strong asylum policy, reduce the incentives for irregular migration, and ensure cooperation with third-party countries. This, however, did not deter irregular entries to the Union at the expected pace and, in 2016, it began to negotiate the EU-Turkey Deal to cope with flows from Turkey to Greece.
That March, the council had adopted a regulation on emergency support to respond to the humanitarian crisis, enabling the EU to help affected member states to address the needs of refugees, and enabling up to €643 million from 2016 to 2019 via partner organisations, including UN agencies, the Red Cross and NGOs. Similarly, the EU agreed to devise a stronger development-oriented approach to forced displacement, putting more emphasis on supporting the inclusion of forcibly displaced persons and addressing the root causes of long-term displacement in the framework of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR), Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and the World Bank’s programs on forced displacement. As a result, irregular arrivals have been reduced by more than 90%.
Beyond foreign policy and external relations, human rights in the union are protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, that recognises human dignity as inviolable, as well as that everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity, which must be respected and protected. Equally, the Charter consecrates the right to asylum, stating that it shall be guaranteed with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention, whereas it prohibits collective expulsions, further determining that no one may be removed, expelled, or extradited to a state where there is a serious risk to be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. As for child protection, Article 24 sets forth that children shall have the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being, and that they may express their views freely, which should be considered on matters concerning them in accordance with their age and maturity. Further, Article 6 of the TEU determines that although the Charter of Fundamental Rights refers expressly to the EU, member states must respect its principles in the EU’s external relations.
Moreover, the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024 embraces, among other objectives, the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide, in all areas of EU external action. As for the strategies, the EU contemplates protecting and empowering people, including advocating for the specific protection to which migrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons are entitled.
Under the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the UN Refugee Convention and its Protocol, and the European Convention on Human Rights, states are required to protect the right of people to seek asylum and protection, even if they enter irregularly. Similarly, in the EU, according to Asylum Law and the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), international protection is granted to migrants who qualify as refugees due to a well-founded fear of persecution and, additionally, protection status is granted to those who would risk serious harm if returned to their country of origin. Under these laws, even if a member state is regulated by its own legislation, they must guarantee the ability to uphold these principles for international protection.
Over the past five years, political instability coupled with the onset or aggravation of low-level armed conflict in key transit and host countries have led to the intensification of movement along the Mediterranean route from different parts of Africa. Last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered 99,475 arrivals by sea and land, of which around 55,300 corresponded to Italy, Malta and Spain through Central and Western Mediterranean routes, representing an overall increase of 24% compared to 2019. In 2020, the rate of refugees entering Italy nearly tripled, when it received 64% of all sea arrivals to the three countries through the Mediterranean, whereas entries to Spain and Malta slightly decreased.
The origin of the people trying to reach North Africa and Europe has also changed since departures from Algeria, Tunisia and Libya soared significantly, and given that North Africa usually functions as a transit hub to reach the Canary Islands or Southern Europe. It is worth remembering that the great majority of refugees live in the nations close to their home country and that their journeys are usually plagued with brutality and abuses that include extortion, rape, forced labour, sexual servitude and death. Indeed, the UNHCR recently denounced continuous stream of reports of European states restricting access to asylum, returning people after they have reached territory or territorial waters, and using violence against them at the borders in an apparently systemic way. Currently, the tightening of border controls across Africa due to COVID-19 is expected to result in additional itinerary shifts and the Western Mediterranean and Canary Islands routes may see more refugees fleeing conflicts, hunger, and harassment as displacement is escalating in the Sahel, where violence has already forced an estimated 2.9 million people to flee.
This year, mass expulsions of migrants and refugees to neighbouring countries, as witnessed in Algeria and Libya, are expected to continue, aggravated by an evolving patchwork of back-and-forth cross-border movements. In Libya, at least 1,400 refugees were expelled in 2020 and abuses were reported by Amnesty International. Similarly, the UK Home Office has allegedly failed to reunite vulnerable refugees who have the right to join their family in the UK under EU law, and has been accused of leaving children and torture survivors stranded after announcing that family reunion law would no longer apply. On the former, the UNHCR told the Guardian that since Brexit, there has not been a clear path to conduct and arrange transfers, whereas lawyers in Greece and Italy said the Home Office has stopped responding to family reunions requests delayed by the pandemic. Today, 80 million people flee persecution, conflict and violence worldwide and children account for about 40% of the world’s refugee population.
As for the experience gained over the past six years, we know that restrictive measures to discourage immigrants to irregularly come to the EU reduce the number of arrivals, but it also implies more exposure to risk for those coming and, subsequently, more human losses. While, ideally, remitter countries should solve their problems and people should be able to live where they are born, neither is likely in the short-term: asylum seekers come from nations structurally broken, sparked with conflict, inequality, political and religious crisis, corruption, and poverty, some of which are torn to dust. EU Members should not ignore the context of people fleeing war, hunger, forced labour, harassment, and abuse. These people deal with the additional burden of risking their lives, losing, or separating from their family, and facing rejection, racism and inclusion problems.
The EU was founded on the values of human dignity, freedom, solidarity, equality, the rule of law, and respect for the universality of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Those groundings sustain the union. Are forced returns and violence the understanding that we practice? Is this our role as humanitarian actors committed to comply with international law, and to promote democracy and justice? It may be difficult to see, from the privileged safety of our homes, that fleeing in a poorly constructed boat is a clear sign of desperation. Are we looking backwards or forwards?
Written by Gabriela Amat
Gabriela Amat is a columnist at DecipherGrey.