After an exceptionally harsh journey on a sinking rubber boat, 102 migrants were rescued by a Liberian-flagged oil tanker on Maltese territorial waters, at the end of July 2013. However, the Maltese Interior Ministry denied them permission to disembark on the tiny island, thus leaving a five-month-old baby and four pregnant women in very precarious conditions.
The decision of the Maltese authorities sparked outrage at the European level. Cecilia Malmström, the European Union Home Affairs Commissioner, warned Malta that it would be breaching international law if it did not accept the refugees into its territory. According to Malmström it is the “humanitarian duty of the Maltese authorities to allow these persons to disembark”. On the other hand, Joseph Muscat, the Maltese Prime Minister, claimed that the captain of the Liberian-flagged ship had ignored its orders to turn back and disembark the migrants in the nearest harbor, situated in Libya.
On Wednesday August 8th, the Maltese government announced that it had reached an agreement with Italian authorities who authorized the ship to dock in Syracuse, Sicily, allowing for a solution to this potential humanitarian crisis.
The fate of migrants in Southern Europe
The story is regrettably not unusual. In February 2010, the Council of Europe issued a report pointing out a growing tendency for mistreating and criminalizing migrants, particularly prominent in southern European states. The report clearly asserts that “when asylum seekers manage to arrive in Europe, they often face further criminal sanctions – criminal charges in respect of the manner of their arrival, prohibition on employment and criminalization of unauthorized employment when there is no functioning reception system which will permit asylum seekers to eat and have shelter”.
Malta has often faced criticism over the conditions immigrants experience following their arrival on Maltese shores: routine jailing upon arrival, long detentions periods (even for minors), usually stretching up to 18 months, in addition to the poor hygiene and safety standards registered on detention centers.
Syrians in Greece face economic and societal challenges when settling down, as recently reported by an article in The Atlantic. Most refugees do not receive the government-issued pink card, their permit to stay legally in the country. Without it, many are thrown into detentions centers where they are “given little food, no clean clothing, or bed linen. They have no soap to wash themselves, no opportunity to call family or friends. They are beaten.” Furthermore, the recent rise of the right-wing extremist party Golden Dawn has led to routine assaults on immigrants throughout the streets of Greece.
A lack of solidarity?
Malta, Greece and Italy have often pressed EU member states to share the cost of receiving and settling refugees. Southern European leaders claim that the Arab Spring has increased the number of refugees arriving on their shores – even Malmström admits that in the first half of 2011, 75 per cent of all asylum applications were registered in only six EU member states.
In response to these concerns, and following 14 years of troublesome negotiations, the EU has reformed its asylum procedures. For instance, officials will have to answer to every asylum claim within 6 months (instead of the previous 24 months). European Union member states will have to assure minimum standards of housing for asylum-seekers, who will also be eligible for the same benefits as EU citizens, such as health care.
But the so-called “Dublin III” rule on point of entry has remained untouched, maintaining that asylum-seekers must submit a request for asylum at their first point of entry to the European Union. They remain limited to their first member state, and are transferred back if they travel to another EU state. The new regulations only precise that the applicants may take legal action to prevent them from being relocated (for example, from Sweden to Greece) and that they do not have to return automatically to their member state of entry if it is overburdened with asylum-seekers or unable to provide humane conditions of living.
Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that the new system will not solve the weaknesses of the Dublin regulations. A report by the German NGO Pro Asyl confirms that a “disproportionate burden has been placed on EU member states located closed to EU borders”. EU leaders have been hitherto incapable of displaying more solidarity towards building a common asylum policy, as they have shown reluctance to accept further transfers of sovereignty in matters relating to migration policies. Hugo Brady, from the Centre for European Reform, concludes that “EU countries have little interest in the Commission’s other ideas to facilitate more legal immigration”, as they are facing harsh economic conditions as well as political upheavals stemming from upcoming elections and the growing mobilization by right-wing parties.
However, asylum-seekers continue to arrive at the EU’s southern shores, pushing its leaders towards the need to solve the weaknesses of the current EU asylum regulations. Will refugees be “the next EU crisis”, as Charlemagne, The Economist’s online column (dedicated to European politics), contends? In the meantime, the fate of thousands of individuals, risking their lives in perilous journeys to Europe, remains uncertain.
Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo Credits: Rescue Operation (off the canaries) by Noborder Network via flickr