Prioritising border control over human Lives: Violations of the rights of migrants and refugees at sea

Migration and Asylum, Policy Brief

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To read the policy brief please click here 

As the European Council sets to adopt strategic guidelines for further legislative and operational planning in the area of freedom, security, and justice. The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) warns that the security approach so far adopted not only undermines the rights of migrants and refugees, but also endangers their lives.

The strategic guidelines which will be adopted by EU Heads of States and Ministers on 26 and 27 June will shape the EU’s Post-Stockholm Programme.  Under consideration will also be the implementation of the recommendations presented by the Task Force for the Mediterranean, set up ‘to save lives’ in response to the tragic death of 366 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013.

On the eve of the EU’s new Post-Stockholm Programme, EMHRN urges the European Council and EU States to ensure that the EU’s forthcoming migration policies and legislative frameworks fully respect the rights of migrants and refugees on its territory as well as beyond its borders. This can only be achieved through a sincere commitment to human rights, the promotion of genuine solidarity amongst EU countries, the strengthening of protection systems in both Member States and non-EU countries, the creation of genuine legal avenues of entry into the EU, and the development of effective safeguards and mechanisms to monitor the impact and consequences of EU policies on human rights.

In its latest policy brief, Prioritising Border Control over Human Lives, EMHRN explains how and why existing legal frameworks and policies endanger the lives of migrants and refugees at sea and lead to a violation of their rights. An underlying reason for the continued deaths of migrants and refugees at sea is not a lack of surveillance or capacity to rescue boats in distress, but a fundamental reluctance of European states to assume responsibility for those they rescue. This is exacerbated by the lack of solidarity within the EU, best exemplified by the Dublin Regulation which relegates asylum assessments to first countries of entry, thereby placing undue pressure on border states already struggling to cope.

In this context, the policies proposed by the Task Force for the Mediterranean to “tackle” deaths at sea are little more than a repackaging of the security-oriented approach which has defined the EU’s migration policy over the past ten years. A disproportionate focus continues to be placed on cooperation with third countries, reinforced border control through Frontex and EUROSUR, and increased voluntary returns of irregular migrants. The focus is predominantly on “saving lives” through policies which effectively limit access to EU territory and in some cases exit from neighbouring countries; in their most extreme form these policies risk institutionalizing push-backs at sea of refugees and other persons in need of protection to third countries, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. 

“It is extremely worrying that an increasing number of EU actors are now calling for the construction of holding centers and the processing of asylum claims in countries such as Libya, under the guise that this would impede migrants and refugees from taking boats and risking their lives,” says Michel Tubiana, EMHRN’s President. “It is not enough for EU states to devise policies that merely save lives. They also have an obligation to ensure that the rights of those who are ‘saved’ are fully protected.”