A return to ‘Fortress Europe’ | Cetta Mainwaring

The European Commission has just unveiled a ‘New Pact on Migration and Asylum’; but CETTA MAINWARING – author of ‘At Europe’s Edge: Migration and Crisis in the Mediterranean’ – argues that there is nothing really new about the EU’s approach

Cetta Mainwaring
Cetta Mainwaring

We have heard many promises of a migration pact from the European Union over the years. Yet so far, it has always proven impossible for all 27 member states to ever agree on a common strategy. Do you think it will be any different this time round?

Overall, the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum is not new. It reinforces the focus on migration control at the external border, as well as prioritizing deportations and ‘partnerships’ with countries outside of the EU, like Libya, regardless of conditions and human rights abuses people might face in those countries. In sum, the aim, as Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas commented in early September, is ‘to keep people… in their countries’.

The document suffers from a belief in a mythical, ‘efficient’ border, described in sterile, bureaucratic language that makes invisible the violence inherent in 21st century borders and migration controls. For instance, the Pact proposes a ‘rapid examination’ of asylum claims before people are allowed entry into EU territory. The ways that ‘rapid examination’ might undermine a robust protection system that fairly assesses individual claims are not discussed.

Similarly, President von der Leyen rolled out this Pact against the backdrop of the devastating fire in Moria, the EU’s largest and extremely overcrowded refugee camp in Greece, and framed the Pact as a way to prevent such events. However, the emphasis on control at the external border and on ‘pre-screening’ will in fact likely lead to more people being held in violent conditions in detention and in camps like Moria.

The focus on ‘efficiency’ also belies the fact that the EU and its member states spend billions on migration and border controls that do not stop people from coming. For its 2021-2027 budget, the Commission is proposing to almost triple funding for migration and border management to €34.9 billion. Despite the enormous resources poured into border control, people still make the journey to Europe, and too many still die en route: since 2014, over 20,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life, most in the Central Mediterranean. Under the broad arc of this new Pact, these facts will not change.

The Pact also gives priority to partnerships and cooperation with countries of origin and transit. The ongoing partnership between the EU and the Libyan Coastguard reveals the lack of consideration given to migrants and their rights in such partnerships. The abuses and dangers faced by migrants and refugees in Libya are well documented, including enforced disappearances, indefinite and arbitrary detention, torture and extortion. Yet, over 8,000 people have been captured at sea and forcibly returned to Libya this year alone. The EU’s complicity in returning people to this war-torn country makes a mockery of our ostensible commitment to human rights and refugee protection.

We also know these types of ‘partnerships’, as well as border controls, do not stop migration. They make migrant journeys longer and more dangerous. They encourage the smuggling business that this Pact purports to be fighting.

The pact also envisages a ‘mandatory solidarity’ mechanism, after various voluntary mechanisms had clearly failed. Do you interpret this an admission that solidarity, at EU level, doesn’t really exist?

In terms of internal affairs, the Pact tackles the question of solidarity amongst member states by proposing an Asylum and Migration Management Regulation, which would replace the Dublin Regulation.

This includes a new mandatory, yet ‘flexible’ solidarity mechanism that is calculated on GDP and population. Under the proposal, member states will be able to show ‘solidarity’ through: (1) the relocation of people from other member states; (2) ‘return sponsorship’, providing ‘all necessary support’ to a member state to deport people ‘who have no right to stay’; and/or (3) immediate operational support.

Although this approach is meant to capture the different positions of member states on relocation within the EU, big questions remain as to how this will work in practice, especially if particular states want to show ‘solidarity’ only through ‘return sponsorships’ – paying the cost to deport people from front-line states. One can easily imagine a reversion to the ad-hoc system in place now. Indeed, three members of the Visegrád Group – Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – rejected the new Pact the day after it was launched.

What is glaringly absent in the Pact is any mention of the people coming to Europe to look for a better life as subjects in their own right, rather than just objects to be controlled. Their preferences to be in particular member states – because of friends, extended family, employment or education opportunities – are entirely neglected. These preferences have an impact on where and how they travel as well as on their long-term integration prospects.

One of the criticisms levelled at this plan is that it focuses too much on forced returns, and too little on integration. Yet recent statistics suggest that the percentage of asylum seekers who do not qualify for protection has increased significantly since 2018; according to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Johansen, genuine refugees are ‘now a minority’. If this is so, shouldn’t part of the strategy involve returning those who do not qualify to their home countries?

There has been increasing talk within the EU of this kind of ‘trade-off’: that the EU’s ability to give refugee protection rests on the EU’s ability to deport people who do not qualify for protection. This is a dangerous and unproductive framework to understand what is happening within the EU.

European member states have an international legal commitment to refugee protection, irrespective of their deportation practices. Yet, what we see in Europe today is a hollowing out of refugee protection – as those who would seek asylum on our shores must first endure long and dangerous journeys, and then face marginalization, disbelief and suspicion during the asylum processes. In 2019, only 38% of those who applied for asylum received a positive decision. We also know that people face very different outcomes to their asylum claims depending on what member state they apply in.

In reality, as we see again with the new Pact, there has been little emphasis within the EU on shoring up refugee protection, and much more money and attention given to policies that deter, detain and deport – often violently. Moreover, in this ‘trade-off’, the social and financial costs associated with deterrent measures are rarely taken into account.

Meanwhile, EU governments – including Malta – have cited COVID-19 as justification for refusing to disembark rescued migrants. Do you feel that European governments are using the pandemic as a pretext to implement policies that would otherwise be considered inhumane?

The pandemic has been used by governments, like Malta and Italy, as a justification for closing their ports to people rescued at sea. Just before Easter weekend, as Malta’s predominantly Catholic population started to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection, Prime Minister Robert Abela closed Malta’s ports to refugees’ 24 hours later the Italian government did the same. Exploiting the Covid pandemic as justification and pointing to the lack of European solidarity on the issue of migrant arrivals, Abela refused to rescue people in distress in Malta’s search and rescue area.

That week, four boats, carrying an estimated 258 people, left Libya and made their way towards Europe. With all four boats within Malta’s search and rescue zone, Malta refused to respond to any of their persistent distress calls. Instead, the government instructed a fishing vessel to forcibly and illegally return one boat carrying 51 people, including seven women and three children, to Libya. Twelve of the original 63 passengers died or were missing by the time the boat arrived.

Although delays to rescue and pushbacks at sea by Malta and Italy predate the current moment, the Covid pandemic has given new fuel and justification to deadly deterrent state practices, as Amnesty International’s recent report lays out.

More recently, 27 people were abandoned by Malta and Europe on board the Maersk Etienne tanker for almost six weeks, described as the ‘longest standoff in European maritime history’. This happened despite the fact that the ship was instructed by Maltese authorities to rescue these people at sea, and despite the fact that after 31 days, three people jumped overboard in desperation. Earlier this year, the Maltese government also detained 425 people rescued at sea on tourist boats for over 5 weeks, despite rough weather and declining medical conditions.

Such inhumane measures are evidently not a rational response to the Covid pandemic. People arriving from Libya by sea have been quarantined in Malta – unlike many of the tourists who have arrived – with limited risk to the general population.

Instead of the risks involved with migration, the Covid pandemic should remind us of the deep inequalities in our own societies, including our unequal access to healthcare, to nature and outdoor space, to safe work environments and to safe homes.

In 2013, you criticised successive Maltese governments because “they focus on the number of arrivals rather than the number who remain in Malta, ignore other significant forms of immigration and prioritise deterrent policies such as detention, which criminalise and isolate migrants and refugees, while also fuelling racism and fear…” Has anything made you revise that opinion since then?

Sadly, my assessment has not changed much since 2013. Despite ostensible reforms to Malta’s detention policy, people are still being kept in detention for months at a time. Recent footage from inside Safi detention reveals (yet again) the violent conditions in which we are keeping people. Earlier this month, a Sudanese man died trying to escape these conditions.

In some ways, things have gotten worse. In the last year, the government appears to have committed to a practice of abandoning people in distress at sea and returning them to Libya, against principles of international law, to a country we know is rife with violence. Let us be clear, to say that our ports should be closed is to say that people should die at sea or be returned to certain violence and torture in Libya.

Could you tell us, in a few words, what sort of ‘migration-management system’ you yourself would like to see in place?

There are many steps that could be taken to improve on the current situation: abolishing or severely limiting the use of detention, creating a robust EU maritime rescue program, ending co-operation with the Libyan coastguard, re-imagining the Dublin Regulation to ease pressure on front-line member states and allow people to be resettled to other member states, according at least in part to their own wishes; and developing integration measures (from education to employment to housing) that enable those who arrive to become productive citizens.

Yet, we can make little progress on these matters without recognizing that European borders, our borders, are violent – they cause people to die at sea, and they continue to marginalize and exclude when people do arrive on our shores.

Rather than looking to the EU for solutions, I find more hope in the grassroots movements that are resisting and remaking EU borders and our societies every day. Search and rescue NGOs, like Sea-Watch and AlarmPhone, are rescuing people in distress and holding the EU and its member states accountable for death and abandonment at sea.

In 2015, in response to the so-called ‘migration crisis’ we also saw an enormous groundswell of local support for those arriving from Syria and elsewhere.

This was a solidarity that rejected the EU’s violent borders and imagined a different Europe. People and organizations in Malta and across the EU are still supporting those who are newly arrived in Europe, materially, politically and emotionally. At this grassroots level, we find deep and abiding forms of solidarity that outshine the empty EU rhetoric on state solidarity.

More recently, the Black Lives Matter protests in Malta and elsewhere are connecting the violence encountered by refugees to the violence and inequalities that ripple through our societies and are felt most keenly by racialized people, the poor, women, the disabled, and others.

In different ways, all these movements are declaring that our ills do not originate from migration – it is not them we should fear – but rather that the struggles of citizens (for safety, housing, employment) are connected to the migrant struggle.