Mixed Migration: Africa - Europe
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Anti-immigration policies, reckless smugglers and cold commercial calculations

Article by William Spindler

Only a relatively small number of the world's migrants travel by sea. Yet the most familiar migration image is probably that of the men, women and children who, crammed on small, barely seaworthy boats, brave the seas to escape poverty, conflict or persecution.

Dying for a better life

Every year, thousands of desperate people in search of protection or a new life drown as their flimsy boats capsize in the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Caribbean and other seas and waterways around the world. Although attempts are made to track casualties, the true extent of this global tragedy will never be known as many vessels sink without trace.

"The fact that there are children among these people in danger, and that we have unfortunately had to retrieve a number of dead ones, has deeply marked us," says Commander Michele Niosi of the Italian Coast Guard. "Children are symbols of renewal, and in these conditions it feels like defeat rather than renewal."

While individual naval and coast guard officers often treat the people they rescue with sympathy, governments tend to approach the phenomenon of boat people from a national security perspective. On occasions, they have declared "a state of emergency" to deal with perceived "invasions" by people who are not only unarmed, but very often half-starved, sick and destitute. Some national and local officials have even gone so far as to suggest that the boats should be shot at with live ammunition.

Interception at sea

While stopping short of measures that drastic, some countries have sent warships to turn back boats suspected of transporting migrants or asylum seekers, a practice known as interception or interdiction at sea.

Given the unseaworthy state of so many of the vessels carrying would-be migrants, many lives are undoubtedly saved by naval and coast guard ships prowling the high seas in search of them. Nevertheless, the practice of interception is highly controversial for a variety of reasons, including the risks it may entail. It is for example an apparent fact that in order to avoid detection boat people are resorting to ever longer and more dangerous routes.

The other main cause of concern is that some of the people embarking on these perilous voyages are refugees. The percentage differs from boat to boat and route to route. "For this reason," said UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Erika Feller, "UNHCR has an interest in maritime issues such as interception, search and rescue, disembarkation, people smuggling and stowaways. Our position remains that the interception process, even if it may be necessary to protect lives and borders, must include safeguards that allow any refugees on board to claim asylum."

Interception at sea, whether in territorial or international waters, is not new. During the 1970s, boat people from Viet Nam and Cambodia were routinely apprehended and towed out to sea by countries in the region, and thousands of Vietnamese may have perished at sea as a result of such 'pushbacks.'

On the other side of the world, the US Coast Guard has been intercepting ships in the Caribbean carrying migrants and asylum seekers from Cuba and Haiti for years.

"We have expressed fears that this policy may have resulted in restricted access to asylum procedures, particularly in the case of the Haitians," said Feller. "The bottom line is that this could lead to refugees being forcibly returned to a place where their life or freedom is at risk."

European interventions

Several European countries have also been intercepting boats suspected of carrying uninvited migrants in the Mediterranean. Since the creation of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at External Borders (or 'Frontex'), a series of high-profile joint interception operations by various EU member states have taken place in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

One such operation, code-named "Hera 2007," deployed Spanish and Italian naval ships and planes to patrol the waters off Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde and intercept irregular migrants attempting to sail to Spain's Canary Islands.

According to the Spanish Ministry of Interior, the number of arrivals in the Canaries plummeted from 32,000 in 2006 to 9,500 in the first 10 months of 2007, as a result of stepped-up interception operations, better collaboration with countries of departure, and information campaigns informing potential travellers of the risks.

The number of arrivals in the Italian mainland and islands, where the Frontex-coordinated "Operation Nautilus" has been active, also fell slightly from 22,000 in 2006, to 19,000 during the first ten months of 2007.

By contrast, the number of migrants and refugees arriving by boat from Turkey in the Greek islands of Samos, Chios and Lesvos doubled from 3,500 in 2006 to 7,000 in the first ten months of 2007 – perhaps partly because it is one of the principal routes used by Iraqis.

Ruthless smugglers

One of the main reasons given by governments for intercepting boats at sea is to combat the smuggling and trafficking of people. There is little doubt that smugglers, some of whom appear to be linked with international organized crime, are behind most irregular crossings by sea. Some of them are utterly ruthless characters who all too often rob, beat and even murder their clients.

In March 2005, for example, 15 Chinese migrants were forced to jump overboard into the sea by "snakeheads" (people smugglers) about 30 km off Sicily. Only two women and four men survived. A forensic examination of one of the bodies showed fractures and a severe contusion in the skull, apparently inflicted before the victim was tossed into the sea.

UNHCR staff in Yemen also frequently report instances when boat people in the Gulf of Aden – where the smugglers are especially brutal – have been beaten, murdered or thrown overboard and attacked by sharks [see p. 12].

Yet, cracking down on smugglers – as important as this is – may not only reduce irregular migration, but close the only avenue left for refugees to escape persecution or conflict. "I can't go back to Iraq, as I will be tortured and killed," insisted Omar, an Iraqi who paid smugglers US$ 1,600 to ship him from Libya to Italy in August 2007. "I was working in Libya but my contract ended. I was afraid they would send me back to Iraq ... no [other] country would give me a visa. What can I do? There was no other choice." Omar was subsequently recognized as a refugee by the Italian authorities.
My brother's keeper

For centuries, rescue at sea has been governed by an unwritten code, which has even been applied to the enemy in times of war.

"As history progressed and the annals of human conflict continued to grow, there remained only one common enemy with which the entire race could consider itself at war, and that was the brute force and wrath of the sea and its elements," writes Clayton Evans, author of a book on the history of rescue at sea. "A bond would develop amongst seafarers and water travellers the world over: when it came to survival at sea they were their brother's keeper."

The moral imperative to rescue fellow humans in peril at sea was eventually given an international legal framework, especially through the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR).

But many migrants and refugees in distress are still saved, not by professional rescuers, but by passing fishermen, leisure yachts, commercial ships, luxury cruise liners – and even by other boat people.

José Durán, skipper of the Spanish trawler Francisco y Catalina, which rescued 51 people – including 10 women and a 2-year-old child – from a dinghy in the Mediterranean, exemplifies the principle of solidarity that binds people at sea. The Francisco y Catalina was stuck off Malta for a week, as countries in the region argued about where the people it had rescued should disembark.

Asked if he would do it again, given the financial losses and legal wrangles it may entail, this fisherman from the port of Santa Pola, near Alicante, replied: "I would do exactly the same thing. No doubt about it. In our way of thinking, we put ourselves in their place. If I was in their situation, I wouldn't want another ship to pass me by without helping me. 'Hell!' I would say, 'I'm going to die!'"

Too expensive to save?

But, as the episode involving the Francisco y Catalina illustrates, vessels fulfilling their duty to rescue people at sea are increasingly encountering problems as states refuse to let migrants and refugees disembark. To the alarm of the shipping industry, such incidents may be seriously jeopardizing the centuries-old humanitarian tradition of sea rescue.

The autumn 2007 trial of seven Tunisian fishermen in Sicily, on charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, has also aroused considerable concern among people who believe the fishermen had actually rescued the 44 people found on their boat (including 11 women and two children) from a flimsy rubber dinghy. If convicted, they face between one and 15 years in jail.
"Ship masters who save people in distress should not be penalized with further expenses," says John Lyras, Chairman of the Shipping Policy Committee of the International Chamber of Shipping. "They should be allowed to disembark the people as soon as possible."

Amendments were made to the SOLAS and SAR Conventions in July 2006, which oblige states to cooperate and coordinate with a view to disembarking persons rescued to a place of safety as soon as possible. However, several key maritime states have not yet ratified these amendments.

Financial pressures also sometimes override humanitarian principles. In May 2007, for example, a group of 27 Africans were rescued by the Italian Navy after they had spent three days and nights clinging to tuna pens dragged by a Maltese fishing boat, the Budafel. The boat's captain told the media he refused to divert his ship to disembark the men because he was afraid of losing his valuable catch of tuna.

Such incidents provoke fears that a combination of anti-immigration policies, reckless smugglers and cold commercial calculations may well signal the demise of a noble practice that is almost as old as humanity itself.

For Asylum & Migration News from UNHCR: www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/asylum?page=europe
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