European waters and migration during the pandemic

As a French citizen studying in the UK, encounters with migrants while traveling across the English Channel have become a regular experience. Whether you take the Eurostar from Calais to Dover or the boat from Ouistreham to Portsmouth, you cannot ignore the reality of their situation, especially during the pandemic. One memory will always remain with me: I arrived by car at the harbour of Ouistreham when suddenly a group of migrants started chasing after the lorry ahead of us. They tried to jump on it and, unsuccessfully, attempted to open the back door of the lorry. This shocked me and at that moment I felt privileged. I had a passport and the right to legally cross the border. Meanwhile, they were illegal immigrants attempting something incredibly dangerous to be able to lead a better life. I was unable to help them and felt embarrassed that this was happening in a European country like France. But this is the reality of the lives of many migrants attempting to cross the borders to European countries.

There are two types of people that arrive in Europe, migrants who come in search of financial stability and who leave their country voluntarily. Then there are the refugees who have no choice but to leave their home country because of war or to seek political asylum. For years thousands of migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean on illegal smuggling boats. Having discarded or been stripped of their legal documents, many become illegal migrants during their, often dangerous, attempt to reach Europe.

In January 2019, a statistic by Eurostat estimated that around 21.8 million people living in the EU member states were non-EU citizens, i.e., migrants. It is also important to note that that same year 10% of all world’s refugees were living in the EU. Figures taken in July 2020, show a record number of migrants (235 people) having successfully crossed the Channel is due to the pandemic and the contradictions of rules between UK maritime security and the UK government.

The European Union has both moral and legal obligations to protect the safety of lives at sea, mainly in the waters belonging to European countries. Despite this, in the early months of 2021 the European Union has prioritized its internal border security rather than protecting lives at sea. The European border and coast guard agency Frontex has been criticized heavily concerning their mishandling of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. Furthermore, since 2017 NGO rescue missions boats have been under the radar of member states. This was the case for German NGO Jugend Rettet (Youth Rescue) whose ship was seized by Lampedusa police. Their humanitarian volunteers can face up to 20 years in prison when accused of helping illegal immigration. EU member states are using the pandemic as an excuse to deny their responsibilities under international law to rescue lives at sea. The recent issues in the Channel and the Mediterranean have proven that the waters bordering Europe have been a place of Human Rights violations.

The ongoing dilemma for the EU is to find solutions and policies that simultaneously guarantee EU border security and human rights. Several issues have been studied: the effective search and rescue, disembarkation, cooperation with NGOs, cooperation with migrant countries of origin and safe and legal routes. However, there is a lack of consensus on state-led rescue capacity within the EU, specifically in border countries in the Mediterranean region. In 2016, the EU set up the European migrant smuggling centre to tackle the issue and aimed to increase cooperation with migrant countries of origin. The initiative has managed to save over 500 000 migrants in 2016. Despite this initiative migrants keep pursuing the illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. It is estimated that since 2015 over 21 000 migrants have died while doing the crossing. Due to the pandemic, governmental rescue vessels have been kept at bay by Italy and Malta, thus reducing the rescue capacity. The reason being in part due to their fear of rising Covid-19 infections. Therefore, NGOs have tried to fill in the gap, but their activities have been hindered by member states, which have , for instance, prevented disembarkation. There is evidently a backsliding by EU member states in their protection of migrant and refugee rights.

Policy Recommendations:

In reaction to these recent events the Council of Europe urged EU countries to change their migration policies. The Commission of Human Rights and the Council of Europe have advised EU member states to deploy more rescue ships along key migration routes, in case of emergencies. It aimed to refrain from impending NGOs boats to save lives at sea, to ensure immediate response to distress calls, and to fully investigate the reasons of non-response or delay. Therefore, the following recommendations would advance an effective EU response to lives in need at sea.

  • The European Union should work hand in hand with NGOs to provide an effective rescue system during the Covid-19 pandemic. Member states should remain impartial towards the actions of NGOs and not interfere with them.
  • Following this recommendation, the EU should attempt to put in place and finance an EU-cooperation of rescue ships between member states and NGOs which will be on stand-by in case of a distress call. This cooperation could be funded by the Human Rights Trust Fund (HRTF) which was established in 2008 to provide funding for states’ efforts to meet their commitments under the European Convention of Human Rights.
  • Member states should be sanctioned if they actively hinder the life-saving work of NGOs under the EU global human rights sanctions regime. This sanction is meant to be applied at a global level, but the EU could impose such a sanctions framework on EU member states if they refuse to help migrant lives at sea. By refusing to let rescue ships disembark, by sanctioning these ships and by not responding to distress calls.

It is clear that the pandemic has shifted European leaders’ attention away from the issue of refugees  and by doing so are not meeting their responsibilities toward the European Convention of Human Rights. Many member states have refused to cooperate with NGOs to help migrants at sea and, to some extent, have condemned humanitarians for helping refugees at risk. Therefore, these policy proposals offer recommendations for the European Union, which could be implemented rather quickly to transform EU waters into safe waters. This is essential since it is expected that in the following decades the number of climate refugees will increase and, thus,  the EU must form efficient policies to be prepared. 

By Natalia Vasnier

Natalia is a second year History student and is a working group member in KTT’s European Affairs policy centre. Her research interests revolve around European migration issues, gender equality and EU foreign policy. Her experience at KTT has strengthened her interest in public policy and policy making in general. She believes that there is a need for a social and political cohesion to unite European countries once again for Europe to be a strong and influential organization in the world.

The featured image is available in the public domain on Flickr.


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