Proposal for rapid screenings of refugees at sea draws fire

Europe’s increasingly hardline refugee policy is raising concerns about the transparency of search and rescue in the Mediterranean, now that all vessels operated by aid organisations have been put out of action.

Panamanian authorities informed Doctors Without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) on Sunday that they would revoke the registration of its vessel, the Aquarius, even as it pulled 58 rescued asylum seekers on board. 

It was the last non-state search and rescue vessel in operation. 

“We’re looking for whatever flag will allow the ship to do its job … We’re in this process [of applying] to all [EU] member states,” Apostolos Veizis, head of MSF programmes in Greece, told Al Jazeera. 

“Europe’s policy now is quite clearly push-backs, border closure and detention,” he added. 

MSF has blamed Italy for pressing the Panamanian government to revoke Aquarius’ flag.

The far-right Italian government, which took office on June 1, has impounded private search and rescue vessels, accusing the organisations that operate them of collusion with smugglers.

A ship is not a place to process a proper asylum claim. To hold refugees in detention is also not allowed.

Axel Steier, head Mission Lifeline

Now that state-controlled coastguard vessels control search and rescue in the Mediterranean, Italy is urging the rest of the European Union to give them greater discretionary powers to process asylum seekers offshore.

Earlier this month, the Italian and Austrian interior ministers floated a plan to conduct rapid screenings at sea. 

“For those who manage to make it into a European state’s territorial waters and are then picked up by a ship, we should use the ships to carry out the appropriate checks on whether they deserve protection,” said Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, estimating that the process should take “a few days”.

He did not clarify what would happen to rejected applicants.

Human rights and aid organisations told Al Jazeera they have doubts about the legal and moral rectitude of such a procedure. 

“I think the main goal is to close the Mediterranean front. The Libya-Italy route is where this mainly applies, and it would legalise the return to Libya of a large number of people,” says Vasilis Papastergiou, deputy head of the Hellenic League for Human Rights, Greece’s top human rights watchdog.

“This may greatly reduce the number of asylum applicants. But is that the goal? If so, one can simply close the border or do push-backs … It’s a form of effectiveness that violates international agreements.” 

Push-backs are forced returns of potential asylum seekers to countries where they may face violence or persecution, and are illegal under the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, the main international pact governing refugee rights. 

Beyond the legal and ethical issues, many express concern about the practicalities of processing traumatised asylum seekers on board a packed vessel. 

“I think you need to be prepared to ask … whether or not people being held in potentially difficult conditions on board can give an accurate and clear picture of why they are fleeing violence and why they need protection,” says Susan Fratzke from the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC, “whether or not they would receive a fair hearing given their own mental state and given the conditions they are in.”

The proposal is chilling … It is ludicrous to suggest in this situation of mass influx that any asylum application, for eligibility or admissibility, can be determined ‘in a few days.

Ariel Ricker, Advocates Abroad founder

“A ship is not a place to process a proper asylum claim. To hold refugees in detention is also not allowed,” says Axel Steier, head of the aid group Mission Lifeline. 

Its ship, Lifeline, was impounded by Maltese authorities last July, after Italian authorities refused to let it dock and opened a judicial investigation into the group. 

Al Jazeera witnessed the ship’s entry into Valetta after it had spent six days at sea with 233 asylum seekers on board, including women and children. 

Italy’s populist government has not only been instrumental in quashing private search and rescue; it has even prevented its own coastguard vessels from bringing asylum seekers on land. 

On August 20, Italian coastguard ship Diciotti was allowed to enter Catania harbour after six days at sea, but 177 refugees, including 34 children, were not allowed to disembark until other EU countries pledged to take them. 

“The proposal is chilling … It is ludicrous to suggest in this situation of mass influx that any asylum application, for eligibility or admissibility, can be determined ‘in a few days’,” says Ariel Ricker, who founded Advocates Abroad, a legal aid NGO with 250 lawyers active in Greece and the Middle East.

“Should this proposal become reality, then these officials may find that this ‘ship of refugees’ will be flanked by ships of lawyers, dedicated to refugee protection and exposure of ongoing illegality. Advocates Abroad attorneys will certainly be present.” 

Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas declined to comment for this story, but in an interview for the Greek newspaper Epohi, he drew a distinction between “well-meant” and “ill-meant” proposals within the EU.

A senior Greek government source who wished to remain anonymous called the Austro-Italian proposal an “illegal stop-gap that runs against human rights and the Geneva Convention, and is practically extremely difficult.”

A history of bizarre proposals 

Unorthodox proposals for dealing with the refugee crisis are nothing new to Europe

Meetings of interior ministers and government leaders at the height of the crisis in 2015 produced bizarre suggestions that revealed the level of panic in the room. 

At that time, Greece was the main conduit for refugees crossing the Aegean from Asia

Former Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas recently revealed to Al Jazeera that he was accused of failing to protect Greece’s – and Europe’s – external maritime borders, despite the fact that member states weren’t at that time responding to the Hellenic Coast Guard’s requests for additional patrol boats and thermal cameras. 

“One delegate suggested, ‘Why don’t you just sink the [refugee] boats?’ prompting the outburst, ‘I can’t f***ing believe it!’ from EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, before she stormed out of the room,” Mouzalas told Al Jazeera.

Mouzalas loaded two dozen ambassadors from EU countries onto a coastguard vessel and sped them to the international waterline between Greek and Turkish coasts. “This is the maritime border,” he told them. “Tell me how to defend it.” 

On two occasions, Mouzalas travelled to the Netherlands to inspect floating platforms that would, if deployed, house hundreds of refugees and the authorities that would process their asylum claims. Greece never used these platforms, but the idea was still being discussed earlier this year, Greek government sources tell Al Jazeera. 

At the December 2015 EU summit, Greece was asked to build a concentration camp for 50,000 refugees – a proposal it parried with a suggestion that the EU subsidise refugee rentals in Greece’s ample vacant real estate. 

A year later, Czech President Milos Zeman thought that Greece should populate its thousands of rocky islets with refugees, a fate Greece has only ever imposed on political exiles during the Cold War. 

The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman suggested that the EU outsource its refugees entirely to Greece, in return for substantial debt relief. 

Rising fatalities 

As these political battles play out in Europe, the fatality rate in Mediterranean crossings is rising, even as the number of attempted crossings falls. 

The EU-Turkey statement in 2016 and a bilateral agreement whereby Italy provided coastguard ships and training to Libya last year, have reduced refugee flows to Europe by 96 percent compared with 2015. 

Over the same period fatalities have steadily mounted from 0.37 percent of people crossing three years ago, to 2.2 percent so far this year.

According to the International Organization for Migration, at least 1,730 refugees and migrants have died so far this year trying to reach Europe’s shores.

The pattern seems clear: the more Europe discourages asylum seekers, the more desperate the attempts of those who continue to try.

The MV Lifeline, a vessel for the German charity Mission Lifeline, arrives with more than 200 refugees and migrants onboard in the harbour of Valletta, Malta, on June 27, 2018 [AFP]

A UNHCR report this month called the Mediterranean “one of the world’s deadliest sea crossings”. 

A separate Oxford University report earlier this month took a broadside at European policymakers, saying recent migration policies “seek to limit irregular migration regardless of the moral, legal and humanitarian consequences.”

Aid organisations, including MSF and Lifeline, believe that giving national coast guards a monopoly on search and rescue will deprive real asylum seekers of protection and make bad decisions unreviewable.

“What we’re doing now is saying, ‘we follow procedures, we are for the rule of law, we are for human rights’,” says the MSF’s Veizis, “but in reality these things are defunct.”

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