Action speaks louder than public declarations | Katrine Camilleri

There is nothing stopping the government from providing ‘safe, legal’ passage for asylum seekers. JRS legal counsel Katrine Camilleri urges Malta to translate its own words into action

Katrine Camilleri
Katrine Camilleri

The last few weeks seem to have ushered in a profound change to the way Europe approaches its thorniest and darkest issue. Until recently, hysterical European politicians regularly sounded dire warnings about an ‘invasion’ by ‘marauding migrants’. But a recent spike in fatalities on the Eastern Mediterranean route –and above all, the sudden circulation of truly harrowing images taken in Europe’s 21st century ‘killing fields’ – seem to have had an instant and emphatic impact on popular perception.

If a single image could be highlighted as epitomising this apparent paradigm shift, it would be the photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who washed up dead on the Turkish coast after the umpteenth failed attempt of a refugee family to reach the ‘safe haven’ of Europe.

Leaving aside the obvious emotional impact of the photo itself, it seems to also give visual substance to all the concerns and misconceptions surrounding the complex issue of migration. The victims of this latest tragedy were clearly bona fide refugees, fleeing a brutal civil war. They evidently had a legal right to seek asylum in Europe; and the EU’s own charters compel its member states to grant such people protection. 

Yet they still drowned while trying to reach their destination illegally.

Katrine Camilleri, legal advisor to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) since 1996, has been deeply involved in migration issues for almost two decades. For about as long she has been advocating – along with other humanitarian NGOs – the creation of safe, legal means for asylum seekers to get to Europe without entrusting life and limb to unscrupulous human traffickers.  

Does she share the sensation – palpable across European media at the moment – that the recent Syrian crisis, with its shocking images of dead babies and grieving parents, has somehow forced a popular rethink about the issue? And if so, is it because the crisis is indeed worsening… or just because we are now more exposed to a reality that was previously hidden from view? 

“To some extent it’s always been this way,” she begins thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s been a hidden reality to a certain extent; maybe we only saw the statistics. But men, women and children have been dying on Europe’s doorstep, and drowning in our seas, for years. It didn’t start now. Even in Malta, we know personally so many parents who have lost children… and so many children who have lost their parents. We’ve had dead bodies brought here, but we’ve also dealt with the survivors. This has been a reality for years…”

All the same, Camilleri acknowledges that there has been a change in rhetoric over the past few weeks. But she quickly points out that for all this change, the core policies governing the asylum question in Europe have largely remained the same.

“It’s about time Europe woke up. But Europe should have woken up a long time ago. I appreciate all the public statements and declarations of sympathy and commitment that inevitably follow tragedies such as the picture of that toddler on the beach. Completely heart-breaking. If that doesn’t move us, nothing will. But the truth is that all this outpouring of grief and solidarity is never followed up by anything that would really make a difference...”

And while the death toll has always been high, she also confirms that the global refugee crisis is indeed deepening. 

“It is true that the number of forcibly displaced people in this region of the world – from countries literally on our doorstep – is increasing. And the number has increased drastically in the last few months. The prolonged conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan… Afghanistan has long been a major refugee-producing country: hundreds of thousands flee the country each year. Then, right next door to us, there’s Libya: another country in turmoil…”

Libya has long been a country of transit for refugees, but the recent chaos has also caused the displacement of Libyans who now need protection: something rarely seen in previous years. “Because of the breakdown of law and order, and other factors – Libya is a very complex situation – it has become much easier for human traffickers to operate freely in that country. So traffic on the central Mediterranean route has increased…”

Not as much, however, as the Eastern and Baltic routes; and here, Camilleri adds, is where the real difference is now being felt. 

“When you look at the nationalities of people crossing from Turkey, Greece or the Balkans: who are these people? Mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. We are living at the edge of a region that is in complete turmoil. It is inevitable that people in that region will flee for their lives. We would do the same. And this problem is compounded by the fact that Europe has been unable to respond satisfactorily to the crisis. It was unable to respond even before, when the numbers were lower. Even today, Europe has not yet developed the capacity to respond effectively. Some would say it cannot respond at all…”

It’s as though, while sensitivities towards this topic are arguably shifting, the political spokes that have always been stuck in Europe’s wheels seem to have remained firmly in place. 

“What is ironic is that, when governments or states talk about this issue today, their primary concern is still their own national self-interest. It is still a question of reducing, as far as possible, the number of people arriving in ‘my’ country. It’s fine to talk about a co-ordinated political response at European level; but for that to actually happen we need to move away from the purely nation-centric approach based on self-interest, towards a truly European approach based not only on the needs of the state, but also on the needs of people seeking protection…”

This, she points out, is not just desirable but also a legal obligation according to Europe’s own laws. However, this view is also hotly contested, in a Europe where most people seem to think that legal obligations exist only for asylum seekers… who become ‘illegal immigrants’ because they broke the law while trying to exercise their human rights.

“States are obliged to grant protection to asylum seekers in their jurisdiction. The truth is that in many cases, asylum seekers have no choice but to travel illegally. If our point of departure is going to be that these people ‘shouldn’t be here’ because they got here illegally… it’s an argument that is destined to fail.

“It simply does not take into account the reality faced by the people who are fleeing. The truth is that few people leave their country, and even fewer risk their lives to travel in those conditions, unless they have to. Of course, some people leave because they want to; but clearly, here we are not talking about that category of person.

“We are talking about people fleeing wars in which hundreds of thousands have died, or extremely repressive regimes where they might face arbitrary imprisonment, torture or even death. These are realities which, unfortunately, many refugees currently seeking asylum in Europe have experienced.” 

Any ‘common approach’, she argues, must take this reality into account; and also, the reality of what these people want. “It’s what we all would want in the same situation. Not just safety, not just survival… that is the first and most basic human need, yes. But people don’t want just to be warehoused, or kept in a safe place and just wait. They want to live their lives to the full: to have access to employment, to feed their families, to educate their children. In brief, the possibility to live in dignity. Unless we take all this into account, we will never address the root causes of this challenge…”

Echoing the views of many human rights NGOs, Camilleri points out that many of the ‘problems’ associated with ‘migration’ are actually caused by Europe’s failure to respond adequately to the crisis.

“The European approach to migration is consistent on only one point: across the board, it is completely fragmented. It’s simply a case of each country to itself. And each country is looking to carve out the deal that they perceive to be in their best interest.

“This is the root of the problem that Europe is facing. We portray the refugees as the problem; and we insist on clinging to this perception. Of course, refugees arriving in such numbers do pose a huge challenge; in no way am I minimising the impact that this has. But the way we are dealing with these arrivals is what is causing major problems for European states…” 

Just yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that Dublin II – the European directive concerning asylum – needs updating to reflect the present reality. Part of the problem concerns the fact that this directive aims to provide a common asylum policy for all member states; but because each country interprets the law according to its own exigencies, the resulting policy is not ‘common’ at all.

This, Camilleri points out, is part of the reason why the death toll has increased. As evidenced by the recent discovery of 70 dead bodies in a truck in Austria, it seems that asylum seekers are not just dying in the attempt to reach Europe; but also in the attempt to get to other parts of Europe once arrived.

“What we are seeing today is that, even within Europe, asylum seekers are forced to turn to human trafficking networks to make their way to the countries they wish to go to. Effectively, this means that smuggling networks within Europe are becoming ever more efficient, because the demand for their services is growing.

“This is why we are suddenly seeing migration-related deaths in Europe, too. 70 dead in a truck in Austria: all asylum seekers; all forced to seek human traffickers not just to get from their country of origin, but even after they arrive. For me, that is completely shocking… I won’t say ‘more’ shocking than other cases; but this is a new and very worrying development.”

This new development seems to also stem directly by internal flaws in the EU’s structures.

“If there truly was a common European asylum system, which was consistent and uniform throughout the 28 member states – if people could live with dignity wherever they went in Europe, and could access support – then surely there wouldn’t be as much pressure to go to countries which are perceived as offering better standards. I think that, at the end of the day, Europe is failing itself; but we are also failing the people who need our support and solidarity the most…”

This raises the question of what can be done to address this crisis. JRS has long been pushing for safe, legal ways to access protection. And judging by recent political statements in Europe, this view is gaining momentum. Various European countries have ‘made exceptions’ to their stringent immigration policies to accommodate Syrian refugees. Yet many of these refugees are still denied legal access.

Katrine Camilleri talks of Syrians who arrived here in Malta by boat, after trying (and failing) to obtain visas to get to Europe legally. 

“The family of that toddler were in the same category. They had relatives in Canada they were trying to get to. Here in Malta we hear the same story over and again: about going from embassy to embassy, begging for a visa… and not getting it.

“I have seen so many valid passports of people who are no longer alive; but who, had there been the legal means to get to Europe safely, would be both alive and in a place of safety. Unless and until people can access Europe through normal channels, smuggling networks will continue to flourish… and we can set up all the taskforces in the world; we can do all sorts of things to their boats… but still they will keep flourishing, because there is a demand.”

At this point a paradox swims into view. Why do countries continue to resist the proposal of legal channels, when even their own governments call for it themselves? Malta is a good example: this week, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, together with Italian PM Matteo Renzi, likewise called for ‘legal means by which [asylum seekers] can access Europe’.

There seems to be growing consensus on the issue. What, therefore, is actually stopping Europe from creating such means? 

Camilleri replies without hesitation: “Lack of political will”.

“All we ever see after every death, after every tragedy, is a lot of public ‘commitments’ to action… but never any action. Even the political statements themselves: we hear politicians from all over Europe calling on ‘the EU’ to do something… like ‘the EU’ is some other entity they’re not even part of. We ARE the EU; but if we can a take a step ourselves… do we take it? This is the question. There are concrete steps we can take: we can make it easier for people with humanitarian protection to bring their families here safely…” 

Lack of adequate family reunification measures, she continues, is itself a factor contributing to recent tragedies. Some of the people in those horrifying images were trying to reach family members who had already arrived in Europe.

“If this possibility existed, most of the people dying today would not have got on board that boat, or into that truck. That would be a last resort after all else fails. This is what this is all about: creating safe and legal means, so that these people won’t have to go through all that just to ask Europe for protection.”

This brings us back to Muscat’s public endorsement of the humanitarian visa issue. Logistically it is a doable thing – several countries are, in fact, doing it as we speak – yet the Prime Minister appears to be urging others to do what he could easily do himself, but so far hasn’t. Is there any legal impediment to stop the Maltese government from issuing such visas?

“No. Every country can do it. Just as Germany has issued humanitarian visas, Malta can do the same. And if you look at the EU today – especially after the Syrian crisis – most member states are in fact allowing family reunification for people with subsidiary protection.

“There are restrictions; and not all countries do it the same way. But they are allowing those families safe and legal means to get to their country. Malta is one of only two countries in the EU where this is not possible. This is one thing we can certainly do. It’s not enough to stand up and make loud noises. We could lead by example. An example preaches far louder than a million words…”

Malta has a very specific need for such legislation, she continues. “Under the present rules, family reunification is possible only for recognised refugees… and there are uncertainties even for some recognised refugees: like those who marry after being granted protection, for instance.

“But people with subsidiary protection – and even less so, those granted temporary humanitarian protection – don’t have this right at all. So yes, the Maltese government will offer you protection; but you will live here safely, knowing your family is in a refugee camp in Jordan, in Lebanon… or still in Syria, for that matter. If these people could bring their families here safely, they wouldn’t need to get into a boat to come here.”

In the end, she adds, it all goes back to the usual pattern of ‘plenty of talk, no action’.

“As far as I’m concerned, Merkel can say certain things because Germany is putting its money where its mouth is. It is taking in more refugees. It is stretched, yes… but at the same time they are providing refuge, they are doing their bit. They have a lot to be proud of. And they can speak with credibility, because they are actually doing something.”