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Mat Nashed

The EU, not fringe fascist groups is the real threat to migrants

Smugglers have replaced wooden boats with cheaper rubber dinghies [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 August, 2017

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Comment: If the EU is truly committed to saving lives, then it's time to replace a policy of deterrence with state sponsored rescue missions, writes Mat Nashed.
Canadian Laura Southern and her European cohorts aren't the only ones "Defending Europe" from black and brown refugees drowning off the Libyan coast. 

The European Union has been doing just that for the last three years. In 2015, the bloc launched operation Sophia, a joint military campaign that aims to identify and destroy vessels that belong to smugglers. Although the EU claims that the mission was started to save lives, its primary motive is to deter migrants from reaching Europe.

At first glance, Sophia appears to be working. By mid-August 2017, only 119,069 migrants entered Europe "irregularly". That's less than half the number that arrived during the same time last year, according to IOM and the UN refugee agency.

However, the central Mediterranean remains a graveyard for those who have fallen through the cracks of history. Already more than 2,408 people - men, women and children - have drowned after escaping war, persecution and poverty. By the end of 2017, the number of deaths and disappearances is expected to reach or surpass last year's record of more than 5,000.

The spiralling toll of human tragedy isn't a humanitarian disaster; it's a political one. And Europe's policy of deterrence is foremost to blame.  

Caught in the middle

Now a target, smugglers have taken measures to protect their vessels, and secure their profit. Instead of using wooden boats, which can squeeze 500 to 600 people at a time, most have resorted to cheap rubber dinghies. The latter aren't nearly as safe, compounding the dangers for migrants on board.

In almost all cases, these dinghies barley make it to international waters before they run out of fuel. Meanwhile, smugglers are sending out many boats at once. The reason, border officials claim, is to prevent the EU from capturing and destroying vessels, by forcing them to first save the lives of everyone at sea.

Smugglers are also injuring and wounding migrants before letting them sail, making rescues more challenging. And while NGOs are saving as many people as they can, their efforts are being curtailed.

Human smugglers will continue to prosper, unless solutions to conflicts are based on more than European interests alone

Libyan "coast guards," composed of militias who are aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord - one of three competing authorities in Libya - are cooperating with the EU by intercepting smuggling boats and returning those on board to Libya.

Read more: An impossible choice: Why Save the Children cannot endorse returning refugees to Libya

NGOs have refused to comply with the arrangement, noting that if migrants are sent back, they could suffer a harrowing fate such as torture, rape and death.

But NGOs can only do so much. On several occasions, their rescue operations have been interrupted by speed boats that belong to Libyan coastguards, which have acted in complete violation of international law.

Some of the coastguards have boarded NGO vessels without permission, while most tend to intimidate migrants by shooting in the air before abusing those on board. 

In one incident from October 2016, involving a crew ship from the NGO SeaWatch, a Libyan coastguard tried to tow a boat in distress. Another coastguard entered the same dinghy, proceeding to beat those on board. The ensuing panic caused the boat to deflate, pushing more than 150 people into the sea. SeaWatch rescued 120 of them, but the others drowned.  

Criminalising rescues  

Although Libyan coastguards are acting with total disregard for international law, it is NGOs who are being smeared and monitored. Since 2015, charities have been accused, most notably by Frontex, Europe's external border agency, of colluding with human smugglers.

Other politicians have suggested, with little evidence, that carrying out rescue missions close to the Libyan coast is encouraging more migrants to risk their lives at sea.

Although Libyan coastguards are acting in total disregard of international law, its NGOs who are being smeared and monitored

Nothing could be further from the truth. People are fleeing due to the high risk of death and abuse in their country of origin, and in transit. 

These facts have fallen on deaf ears in Brussels and Rome.

And now, the EU is supporting Italy in imposing a new "code of conduct" on NGO rescue ships. The new protocol prevents NGOs from transferring rescued migrants to other ships at sea. This means that NGOs must sail back to Italy in between rescues, rather than stay in the central Mediterranean to spot other boats in distress.

As a result, several relief groups have terminated their missions, citing that the "code of conduct" will not save lives, but put more people in danger.

The new protocol prevents NGOs from transferring rescued migrants to other ships at sea

They are right. If the EU is truly committed to saving lives, then it's time to replace a policy of deterrence with state sponsored rescue missions. 

All the while, Europe must rethink its stance on migration. More routes to the continent, including asylum, student, and work visas, must be made available. If there are legal alternatives to hiring smugglers, then people will exhaust them.

However, human smugglers will continue to prosper, unless solutions to conflicts are based on more than European interests alone. 

In the case of Libya, the coastguard programme should be terminated. These militias are violating the human rights of asylum seekers, generating another legitimate reason for them to flee. It would be smarter if the EU doubled down on its efforts to broker a new political agreement.

Only a single governing authority - which garners legitimacy from most internal factions - can restore the rule of law, curtail smugglers and enable aid groups to administer refugee services from inside Libya.

It's time the EU defends the values they claim to stand for. Without advancing human rights and aiding political solutions, more people will drown as conflicts continue to deteriorate.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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