Despite 800 people drowning off Lampedusa in the Mediterranean on this day last year, Europe is still failing to deal effectively with the migration crisis. Vulnerable people seeking safety and dignity remain at risk of death, torture and exploitation as they try to reach and cross the Mediterranean to then face a legal limbo once in Europe, said Oxfam in a new report today, ‘EU hotspots spread fear and doubt’.
The crossing between Libya and Italy is the deadliest sea route in the world and the death toll for the current year has already reached 219 people. Regardless, nearly 10,000 people attempted to use this route to reach Europe in March alone. Total arrivals to Italy in the first quarter of 2016 are almost double the number of arrivals in the same period in 2015. But before people even reach the Mediterranean crossing points, many are left traumatised due to traffickers’ abuse in North Africa.
According to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, migrants detained in the country often face torture, beatings, and forced labor. Recently four migrants were shot dead and 20 wounded while trying to escape a detention center.
22 year old Somali woman, Filsim, said: “I spent 8 months in Libya. We were imprisoned by a gang of traffickers when we arrived in the country. They would leave us for two or three days without food and water, and they beat us for fun. I have so many scars on my breast.”
Filsim was finally released when her family managed to pay an US$800 ransom to the traffickers. She had to then pay US$1000 for the trip to Italy.
The EU’s response to the Lampedusa drownings this time last year and the Mediterranean crisis as a whole has yielded successive emergency summits, beefing up Europe’s border security and bringing in a ‘hotspot’ plan for Italy and Greece where asylum claims are expedited with a focus on swift rejections.
Three hotspots have been functioning in Sicily since September 2015, but the European and Italian authorities in charge of them have yet to agree a clear legal framework and on how they are run. This leaves a serious gap in clarity on how this system is ensuring respect for Italian, European and international law. The Italian parliament was challenged on this – no response has been forthcoming.
Vincent Koch, Oxfam’s Regional European Response Coordinator said: “We have desperate people in desperate need and in desperate situations and the EU’s answer is to put their political interests before the safety and dignity of human beings. The EU’s approach to migration is adding to the overall death toll in the Mediterranean and ruining people’s chances of leading safer lives.”
The expedited approach of the hotspots is yielding faster decisions and more expulsions, but as a result many people are being shut out of the asylum system, left stranded and even more vulnerable.
Bakari, from Gambia, said: “After two days, they gave us the paper [the return order] and they put us out on the street without any explanation. There were seven of us, and we slept at the train station in Catania for three months.”
People left like this are at risk of trafficking and labor exploitation – and fear often prevents them from seeking help. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, this fear means that those responsible for exploiting migrants can act with impunity — with women left particularly vulnerable to abuse — while people who seek to assist undocumented migrants can face criminal charges.
“Migrants are increasingly being left in a legal limbo with nowhere to go and at risk of exploitation and abuse. It is a lose-lose for far too many people, who are deemed lucky because they survived the Mediterranean crossing unlike the 800 people who drowned in the Lampedusa tragedy last year. Put simply: the European Union has to do better than this as the death toll is rising,” said Koch.
Oxfam calls for the EU and the Italian government:
– To clarify immediately how the procedures used within the hotspots approach are in accordance with law at European and national level and how oversight is conducted, including recourse to appeals.
– Ensure that, in accordance with law, every person is informed about his/her rights, including the right to ask for international protection, in a form and language they can understand.
– Bring identification and registration procedures into line with full respect of human rights. Use of force to coerce compliance with identification and/or fingerprinting procedures must not be permitted.
– Guarantee that no one is pushed back or expelled without a specific examination of his/her individual situation by the proper authority, which cannot be a law enforcement officer.
– Put an end to de facto detentions. No one must be retained in reception centers for for the sole purpose of ensuring his/her identification. Guarantee access to independent organizations that can provide aid, including psychosocial support, and monitor the respect of human rights, on the ships used for search and rescue operations, at the disembarkation points, and inside the centers where identification takes place.
– Put in place specific protection procedures for vulnerable people, including unaccompanied minors, women travelling alone, pregnant women, traumatized or ill people, and people with disabilities.