The coronavirus pandemic has shown Europe’s worst side to the world. By declaring their harbors as unsafe, the EU countries have turned their back on thousands of asylum-seekers (including elderly, pregnant women, and children) taking dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to escape conflict, persecution, and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Italy executed a cynical strategy to deny hundreds of migrants (traveling on flimsy rescue boats) entry into the country – citing the health emergency to declare its shores as dangerous. Claiming that the nation cannot guarantee the security of migrants’ lives and that the migrants might include people who have contracted Covid-19, a government decree noted:
“For the entire duration of the health emergency, due to the outbreak of coronavirus, Italian ports cannot be classified as ‘safe places’ for the landing of people rescued from boats flying a foreign flag.”
Two days after the unprecedented move, Malta announced its decision to reject migrants claiming its resources were stretched due to the spread of coronavirus. Suggesting that the risk the migrants themselves may be carrying the deadly virus, the government released a statement saying: “It is in the interest and responsibility of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbor. In the light of the magnitude of these pressures, it is considered that the Maltese authorities are not in a position to guarantee the rescue of prohibited immigrants on board of any boats, ships or other vessels, nor to ensure the availability of a ‘safe place’ on the Maltese territory to any persons rescued at sea.”
The decision by Italy and Malta comes after a rescue boat operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye rescued 150 migrants from two wooden boats off the coast of Libya and is now located a few miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa. With the two closest European countries declared unsafe and closed, their fate hangs in the balance.
Watch: Closed Borders under COVID-19
It is not about Coronavirus
Europe’s turning its back on refugees should not be viewed as desperate measures during desperate times but as part of years of continuous efforts to reinforce anti-migrant deterrence measures. Matteo de Bellis, Amnesty International’s researcher, writes: “In truth, COVID-19 is not only compounding already dramatic situations for refugees and migrants but also providing unscrupulous governments with a chance to build Fortress Europe even higher. Italy and Malta have reinstated “closed port” policies, effectively abandoning people at sea, with the latter accused of having set up a clandestine fleet of fishing vessels to carry out pushbacks towards Libya. Austria, Cyprus, and Hungary have restricted access to asylum. Bosnia has confined thousands in a camp in appalling conditions. And the list goes on.”
To set the record straight, Italy’s right-wing leaders have made immigration a key issue in recent years, rolling out decrees to curb the influx of migrants (Italy is the main entry for migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe). In 2018, leader of the right-wing League party and the then interior minister Matteo Salvini declared Italy’s ports closed to migrants, arguing that the asylum seekers posed a threat to national security. Insisting Italy must stop being “the refugee camp of Europe”, Salvini said that the government considered action against organizations rescuing migrants at sea because Italy was saying “no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration”.
Italy’s new populist government is strongly anti-immigration and has promised to take a tough stance on migration. Members of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League within the government want that half a million undocumented migrants must be deported “as a priority” – coronavirus or no coronavirus.
Malta on the other hand has turned a blind eye to anything that would threaten its economic development, including immigration and labour law enforcement.
In April, investigations by the New York Times and the Italian daily newspaper Avvenire revealed that Malta had allegedly dispatched a small fleet of private ships to intercept and push migrants back to the conflict zone of Libya. Malta’s deadly strategy was exposed by a woman who survived a brutal Mediterranean crossing. She told The Guardian: “Once we were aboard the boat, we begged them to not bring us back to Libya. But then they placed us in the stern of the ship and locked themselves in the boat kitchen. They left us inside with four bottles of water. We knocked but they didn’t open. We started to cry and think that they had just lied to us.”
Though Europe is obliged under international humanitarian law to accept rescued migrants despite the virus, in reality, EU member states and institutions have been working in tandem to keep them away and deprive them of safety. One tactic employed by the EU, writes DW, has been to task the Libyan coast guard with picking up refugees headed to Europe and returning them to Libya – those taken back are often tortured and blackmailed.
Tales of brutality
Refugees risk everything they have to make the treacherous journey on cramped and unsafe vessels on the world’s deadliest migration route (with more than 15,000 deaths recorded since 2014) because the lives they leave behind pose an even greater danger than the sea – from poverty to authoritarian governments, from barrel bombs to chemical weapons, from violence to unrest.
And what do they get? They are considered a problem and are greeted with resentment, suspicion, and brutality. The New York Times reports: “… their next journeys were likely to be rougher than the seas we’d just passed, and that many of them would be turned back. Some refugees would be detained and spend weeks or months in the refugee center. Others would be deported back to their countries of origin immediately. For most, they still had hundreds of miles to traverse overland, by any means possible — hopping trains or buses or even crossing the Alps on foot — to reach their final destination. Nothing was guaranteed, even now, not even survival.”
An investigation by The Financial Times suggests that violence, apart from coronavirus, is also being used to deter asylum seekers. And, it is not restricted to Italy or Malta. Interviews with 25 migrants and several aid organizations reveal that beatings and “pushbacks” are now systemic across Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece’s borders – in violation of the EU law. The Financial Times shares a chilling account of torture: “When Ibrahim was caught on the Romanian side of the border with Serbia, he and his fellow asylum seekers thought they were lucky. The guards smiled and promised to take them to the closest city to request asylum. Instead, they drove the migrants back into the Serbian forest, donned masks, and beat them with batons before speeding away.
“Ibrahim, 22, protected his face with his hands and escaped with a broken wrist. His friend, a fellow Syrian refugee, was struck on the head so hard he lost consciousness. Ibrahim cannot bring himself to tell his family what happened: after surviving airstrikes, ISIS and conscription, it is in Europe, he says, he reached his lowest point. “I had no idea they’d treat humans like they do in Syria,” Ibrahim says from the Kikinda border camp in Serbia near the Romanian border. “Maybe the idea of Europe is a big lie.”
Will there be a way forward?
Migrants face greater risks during the coronavirus pandemic. The European Asylum Support Office warns that coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East and North Africa could potentially cause food shortages, destabilize security and strengthen extremist groups – which would eventually trigger more arrivals in the future. Should The EU misuse the coronavirus pandemic for political purposes?
Pat Rubio Bertran, Program Lead for Greece-based NGO Refugee Rescue, observes:
“COVID-19 may have transformed the world in many ways, but upholding people’s fundamental rights to seek asylum must not be impeded. The European Commission explicitly states that travel bans related to the pandemic should not apply to persons in need of international protection, and we must remember that it also applies to our sea borders.
“It is not a matter of ability, but of will. European governments and policy-makers must choose saving lives while complying with health measures, instead of choosing illegally pushback, or refuse to rescue, refugees at sea. We must not allow COVID-19 to become another border to safety and asylum for refugees.”