Does Europe remember the Geneva Convention?

European Union countries continue to opt for reactionary crisis management of migration in the face of human tragedy.

This year over 87,000 people have arrived on Italy's shores, writes Giambalvo [EPA]

“A few months ago someone starved to death in our squat,” said Muna a 26-year-old Somali woman who has been living inside a run-down university building in Rome since 2006. Selam Palace, where over 1,000 refugees live, has become the symbol of Italy’s “migration crisis”. Like Muna, thousands of the country’s refugees are living in unofficial housing arrangements including tent cities, old factories, dumpsters even henhouses.

They are the lucky ones; the ones who made it. “I saw my brother drown in front of my eyes,” said Hamid who survived the shipwreck during which 10 people died. “I had to leave him behind; it would have been too difficult for my mother to lose both her sons on the same night” he added.

This year over 87,000 people have arrived on Italy’s shores, according to statistics from the UNHCR. Unable to cope with the numbers, the country declared a “state of emergency”. Italian officials recently escorted two buses packed with asylum seekers to the doors of Selam Palace.

State of emergency

Authorities say they lack the resources to adequately support migrants, but those working on the ground argue that repressive border practices and ineffective policies are to blame. In Sicily, asylum seekers have been housed inside churches, gyms and abandoned schools, often in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

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Fights have become frequent inside these centres where migrants are abandoned for months, even years, with very little idea of what is happening to them. “The south of Italy is becoming a concentration camp for migrants,” said MS Cordaro as we drove past the CARA Mineo, a processing centre for migrants, which currently holds over 4,000 people.

Stuck between EU regulations, which force them to claim asylum in their first port of call, and the inefficiencies of Italian bureaucracy, many migrants in Italy end up in a limbo of illegality and destitution. On my first day in Sicily I met Adeel, a 26-year-old Pakistani man who lives in a shanty town just outside a processing centre, with 200 other asylum seekers.

“The centre is full and the waiting lists seem to never end, so some people began to set up camp underneath a bridge in its proximity,” he said. On the night I was supposed to visit the make shift centre it was cleared by police bulldozers. “Come back in two weeks’ time,” said Adeel over the phone. “Every so often they do that because they say the camp is illegal. But we just build it again, where else can we go?”

However the problem is not just the number of arrivals, but the mismanagement of the asylum system. “Year on year the government declares a state of emergency to deal with immigration,” said Manuela Scebba who works for the NGO Arci Amari. “The problem is that there isn’t a plan. The wars are not going to stop. What are we going to do next year? Call another emergency?” she adds.

A thousand body bags

But governments are still focussed on stopping migration flows. Human rights groups have cried foul at the scrapping of Mare Nostrum, the biggest search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, warning that in its absence, this year’s death toll of 3,000 people could multiply. It has now been replaced by Triton, a border surveillance mission carried out by Frontex, EU’s border agency. Triton not only lacks the large scale funding (its budget is about one-third of its predecessor’s) but most importantly, it hasn’t been given the mandate from Europe to carry out search and rescue missions.

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“The EU is progressively closing its borders, moving them further south along the Mediterranean,” says Carmen Cordaro a lawyer who specialises in maritime border policy. “In this context, the debate over search and rescue missions is almost futile. What we really need is an EU policy on migration that goes beyond surveillance and push-backs, which at the moment is virtually non-existent.”

In a bid to contain the flow of migrants, EU border-states have traditionally made agreements with neighbouring countries, which do not share their onerous duties towards upholding the human rights of asylum seekers, enshrined in the Geneva Convention.

In 2008, after signing a friendship treaty between Italy and Libya, then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared:”We’ll have fewer migrants and more gas and oil.” Included in the list of military aid which Italy had sent to Libya were 1,000 body bags. Sadly, this was a gross underestimation of the number of people who would die during push-backs to Libya.

Despite being in contravention of national and international laws, several EU countries have used push-backs as a means of border control. The Spanish Guardia Civil (national law enforcement agency) has often been criticised for handing over migrants to Morocco and there are numerous reports of mass expulsions from Greece to Turkey. 

“In Europe there seems to be a concerted effort to evade the Geneva Convention. Why doesn’t the EU just come out and say it: We no longer want to abide by the Geneva Convention,” Cordaro said.

There are virtually no legal entry routes into Europe; even for asylum seekers fleeing from war-torn countries like Syria. Far from countering migration flows this approach to migration has merely fuelled the human smuggling market and splintered migration routes towards longer and more dangerous points of passage.

Earlier this year I travelled across Italy to document the stories of those who arrive to Italy’s borders. “Europe or Die”, the name of the documentary, refers to a phrase which a group of men screamed at the producer as they plunged towards the 3m barbwire fence which separates Spain from Morocco.

For the past 10 years Italy has declared a “state of emergency” in relation to migration nearly every year. In the meantime, the human rights of migrants have been increasingly sidelined in favour of quick-fix solutions to the “crisis” and tighter border controls. Far from an emergency, the influxes, the deaths and the overcrowding of centres are the predictable consequences of denying a legal entry route to those who have no other choice but to flee.

Flaminia Giambalvo is a freelance  journalist  and field producer of the Vice News documentaries “Fortress Italia” and “Europe or Die”.