Human Rights on Europe's Maritime Borders

libya, un iom
Maritime migrants intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard are returned to Libya (UN IOM file image)

Published Nov 6, 2020 8:43 PM by Brian Gicheru Kinyua

The transnational movement of people - especially by water – is a divisive question in national debates. In this era when the European nations are divided along migration policies in maintaining their national order and security, asylum seekers and migrants are often viewed as a threat. Obsession with nationalism has led to asylum seekers and refugees being seen as potentially amoral, criminally-minded and a risk to the social fabric of their host countries.

Terms such as “migrants,” “refugees” and even “asylum seekers” tend to fuel certain stereotypes, and consequently they fail to humanize the individuals involved. However, for purposes of aligning this article with the common parlance in migration debates, I’ll regularly use the terms “migrants” and “refugees” to describe people who get uprooted from their native countries by political and economic disturbance and try to root themselves in foreign nations in search of human dignity.

It is not Europe’s fault that there are political upheavals in the North African and Arab countries which are the primary sources of Mediterranean maritime migrants, but it is Europe’s responsibility to respect human rights, as stipulated by international law. In the European Court of Human Rights’ landmark ruling in Hirsi Jamaa v. Italy, which found Italy guilty of refoulment, one of the judges pointed out that “even refugees have a right to have rights.” It went on to state that any European nation that would be shown to participate in refoulment operations - including through a proxy force - would be held liable for international human rights violations.

This was the genesis of the behind-the-scenes cooperation between EU and Libya to strengthen the Libyan Coast Guard. This agency has been intercepting crossings along the Mediterranean Sea and returning migrants to Libyan shores. The process has been fraught with immense controversy and criticism: a 2019 expose by The Guardian revealed that an Italian number was listed among the first telephone numbers in the Libyan Coast Guard’s IMO registration paperwork. It is undeniable that the EU has been using Libya’s coast guard as a proxy to intercept refugees crossing along the Mediterranean Sea, most of whom end up in detention centers in Libya where human right abuses have been reported.

This has unfortunately failed to elicit the seriousness it requires in protecting lives of many people uprooted from their countries by political, economic and cultural upheavals. Just last week, reports of a deadly shipwreck off the coast of Senegal emerged where 140 people lost their lives. In this risky voyage, 200 passengers set out from Senegal in a rickety boat in an attempt to reach the Spanish-administered Canary Islands, 750 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean. It ended in tragedy when the boat burst in flames.

This West African sea passage to European territory was common in the early 2000s, until Spain stepped up its sea patrols. This year has seen an increase in these perilous migrations. Data from the IOM (International Organization for Migration) shows that in the month of September alone, there were 14 boats carrying 663 migrants along this route. Unfortunately, 26 percent of these departures experienced an incident or shipwreck. According to IOM there have been roughly 11,000 arrivals in the Canary Islands so far this year, compared to 2,557 arrivals during a similar period last year.

Along the Central Mediterranean route connecting North Africa to Italy and Malta, there were more than 36,221 migrants who entered Europe by sea through August 12. In the months of May, June, July and early August, just under 12,000 men, women and children crossed over to Europe from Africa via the Central Mediterranean route, the highest proportion for Italy’s irregular arrivals. However, one out of every 18 migrants die in these risky migrations by boat, and this number has shot up in 2020.

This is a huge challenge for Europe as most migrants and refugees view the continent as their safe haven, but protection of human life has to prevail in all efforts directed at illegal migration. Since the EU naval mission withdrew its rescue vessels in March of 2019, search and rescue operations in these volatile sea passages have become unsystematic and chaotic at best.

But it’s not just Europe’s responsibility to mitigate loss of life along the sea passages between Europe and Africa. When citizens of African countries are willing to risk their lives in search of greener pastures in Europe, it should be a wake-up call for African leaders - and especially the African Union (AU) - of their failure to oversee political and economic stability in most African nations.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.