Archive for refugee crisis

The Politics of Search and Rescue Operations

by Morgan Cronin-Webb, an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media and European politics. In February, students, professors and human rights scholars at Columbia University were fortunate enough to hear Dr. Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian, speak on the politics of search and rescue operations.

Dr. Spencer works in public health both in New York, providing clinical care, and internationally, dealing with issues as wide ranging as access to legal documentation in Indonesia to the coordination of an epidemiologist response to Ebola in Guinea. His most recent posting was on a Doctors without Borders search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean. He began his discussion at Columbia University by giving background to the current refugee crisis: Dr. Spencer explained that the difference today in dealing with refugee issues is “the scale of the problem” and “how we are dealing with it.” Contrary to public opinion and media representations, he made it clear that developing countries, which are already “vulnerable and fragile,” bear the brunt of the current crisis in terms of hosting refugees.

For example, migration has happened across Africa for hundreds of years as people moved to North Africa where there were more jobs. This was especially the case during the beginning of Muammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya, Spencer said. He gave the example of Bangladeshi men who used to travel willingly into Tripoli, but who are now more recently being trafficked. Spencer explains that because Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean, has not signed the refugee convention, Italy does the search and rescue operations near Libya, which remains a currently unstable country. The passing Italian coastguard is required to help boats in distress that are outside of Libya’s sovereign land. Spencer explained that distress can include any boat that is still running but that is unlikely to last long. Further, he asserted that the Italian coastguard may destroy boats in the Mediterranean in order to prevent smugglers from reusing the sea faring boats that people take from Libya.

Dr. Craig Spencer gave a talk at Columbia University on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in February 2018. // Lara Nettelfield

One particularly jarring image in Spencer’s talk was his anecdote of people stitching their family phone numbers into their clothes, in case they do not survive the journey. It highlights the fact that migrants are highly aware of the risks that they are taking but often take the risk anyway, absent viable alternatives.

Spencer explained that Medecins Sans Frontieres tries to give a sense of humanity back to those that board their boats. This is especially important because migrants often endure routine rape, beatings, and torture during their journeys. Bangladeshi men, in particular, are seen to be “cash cows,” so they are more likely to be detained time and time again, until their families send money.

A picture of a boy’s drawing of his journey was projected during the talk. The disturbing details that were added to his account, including the number of days he spent in each place, along with the conditions, experiences of torture, degrading treatment, and the complexity and length of the route, left an unforgettable image for the audience.

Spencer went on to discuss why the situation in the Mediterranean remains so contentious, pointing to the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. In this controversial “one in, one out” deal, one refugee in Greece is returned to Turkey in exchange for one refugee in Turkey finding asylum in Europe. The deal, under which Turkey received €6 billion, was an effort by European states and the EU to decrease incentives for migrants to journey to Europe. As a result, Spencer purports that fewer people made the journey from Turkey to Greece and instead came up through the central Mediterranean since the deal has been in place. This erodes the EU states’ moral high ground when it comes to human rights, as Turkey lacks a stellar record in protecting human rights and has violated the principle of non-refoulement, which in the 1951 United Nations Convention offers a person protection against return to a country where he or she fears persecution.

The conversation with Dr. Spencer next turned to the role of populist governments in fueling anti-migration sentiment. For example, Italy threatened to close down its port (which would have been against maritime law) in response to a lack of responsibility-sharing from other European states, such as France and England. Further, Spencer explained that an anti-migrant party majority recently won elections in Italy.

National and international attention was further galvanized by the Lampedusa shipwreck, where nearly 1,000 migrants drowned just off the coast of Italy. This led to the Mare Nostrum humanitarian operation by the Italian military aimed at confronting the crisis of drownings in the Strait of Sicily. Following this, the European Council’s Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean has focused on catching smugglers and on border security, rather than search and rescue missions.

Since 2013, search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean have been a highly contentious issue in the media. // Lara Nettelfield

Another issue of contention was the fact that NGOs conducting search and rescue operations from privately-owned ships in the Mediterranean were asked to sign a code of conduct by the Italian government, making it harder for NGOs to carry out their search and rescue missions, Spencer said. He claims that “the only thing that happens when people are prevented from being rescued is that more people drown.” The code made NGOs feel like they had done something bad and also lowered their profile in the media. One privately funded group even raised money for a boat to take people back to Libya.

Spencer next moved the conversation to Europe’s externalization of border controls and use of development aid to stem migration flows. Instead of supporting search and rescue teams, Europe and Italy turned to supporting the Libyan coastguard, for example. Spencer noted that millions of dollars were spent on training them. Despite this training, the Libyan coastguard have shot and stolen from migrants, something Spencer says he has witnessed himself. He indicated that the EU is essentially supporting militias, supplying guns and medical supplies, which are used at detention centers. In January, Libya was not paid, so they started sending people across the Mediterranean again, and the number of militias in Libya increased.

Spencer added that the majority of people pass through Libya and Niger. Most people in Agadez, for example, have migrated through the desert, so an attempt was also made by the EU to stop people migrating there. The EU’s Sahel policy resulted in Niger making it illegal to migrate or to transport people. Spencer indicated that the EU has further invested in and supported development in West Africa, another attempt by the EU and UN to stop all migration.

However, he explained that even with these policies and more money being spent, people are still going to migrate. If you don’t have traffickers or smugglers whose livelihood is transport, security risks may actually increase as some people may resort to terrorism. For example, 80 percent of Lake Chad has dried up, so people there are more likely to turn to Boko Haram if they cannot migrate through the region, he said. Certain policies may actually make migrants more vulnerable and raise risks.

Spencer concluded his talk by emphasizing that people would rather die at sea than stay in Libya. Further, he says that sending money has not helped. This is a global issue that needs a global response. Conversations like Spencer’s raise the question of why so much time and money is spent on externalizing border controls and securitizing migrant issues rather than providing safe and legal routes to Europe.

Morgan Cronin-Webb is a Human Rights master’s student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.  

 

The Story of a Young Tunisian Mother’s Struggle for Safety

By Izzy Tomico Ellis, a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Additional reporting by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

Syrine* is sitting on the edge of a bed inside a tidy room for two, in City Plaza — a squatted hotel in Greece where solidarians from all over the world have flocked to bring respite to its refugee residents. Her little son started walking yesterday. In between our conversation, she holds out her hands to catch him as he falls down. Soothing him, she recalls, “I looked on Facebook to find out what to do when he was crying. I was alone with a baby…I didn’t know anything.” 

When we asked her if we could write down her story, she smiled, “I’ve thought about telling it a lot.”

The strength with which she carried herself had compelled me to ask, and at the same time made me worry she’d laugh. For her, a 21-year-old mother, bravery comes so naturally. 

When we first met in Athens in the January darkness, she explained that her husband had gone out the previous night to buy cigarettes and never came home. In the morning, she had called the main hospitals.

“He wasn’t there. I was relieved a little,’’ Syrine recounts shakily. But a few hours later, she had discovered he was in prison after being caught without the legal papers for refugees in Athens.

Too scared to return to where she had been staying, Syrine had been pushing her son, Salah*, around the streets in a buggy ever since.

Alone and homeless, remarkably she kept a clear head. She spoke calmly in English, asking for a lawyer to come the next day to try and resolve the situation for herself and her family, and arranged a room at City Plaza.

It wasn’t the first time. The young Tunisian woman has spent nearly three years running to protect herself, her husband and their son. Salah was just 8-months-old when they had to flee their country after Syrine’s relatives threatened to kill her in revenge for bringing dishonor to the family. The couple had managed to marry just before Salah was born, but Syrine’s family continues to look for her.

“My brother would do it, I know he would,” she said. Until then, she had been at university, hiding the relationship and pregnancy from her family. “I didn’t want an abortion; it’s easy, but it was my baby with the man I loved.”

The International Women’s Day march in Athens, March 08, 2018. // Izzy Tomico Ellis

She described the double-life she was leading in Tunisia, scrolling through old Facebook posts and event pages of the electronic music nights she and her husband would attend in the city of Sousse, close to the country’s capital, Tunis.

Tunisia has made significant legal advancements in the push toward gender equality, including lifting a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and ending a law that meant rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims. However, systematic violence against women still persists: In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said 70 percent of Tunisian women were victims of abuse and honor killings in Tunisia are still reported.

“One man told me there was no hope for asylum, and I should just go back,” she shakes her head . “He has no idea… My father is a famous man, he cares about what the people think, not about me —  we had to leave.”

After fleeing to Turkey, they arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syrine describes what she saw in the camp as unbelievable. “Everywhere children without clothes or shoes,” she says. “Some people stay there for over a year —  one year!” Her eyes widen. “ I would go crazy.”

Moria camp has become an infamous symbol of the European refugee crisis where living conditions that lie behind barbed wire fences have been repeatedly condemned by leading human rights organizations. 

“We went to a hotel the next day and travelled to the mainland illegally. I couldn’t live there… with a baby,” she shakes her head.

“I think he misses him. He was happier before,” she gestures to Salah, as he refuses food in a restaurant close by to where they are staying.

Syrine has spent the last few weeks trying to arrange paperwork for her husband, to no avail. As the pair had left the previous island camp without the correct documents, she was told she would have to return if their asylum case was to be processed as a couple. Though, Syrine has relentlessly tried other ways.

“Every day I wake up early, I go to this organization — Katahaki (the Greek Asylum Service) — but each day passes and nothing happens,” she says. “Every night I would fall asleep and hope tomorrow will bring a solution.’’

But it hasn’t, so today she is leaving. Her hair is more blonde, and she’s cut it shorter. Her husband is still imprisoned, and Syrine is forced to leave her safe room in the hotel —  to travel back to a camp and live alone.

“It’s a dangerous step, but I must do it. I must go back there to help my husband,” she says. Her voice falters. Only a few days were spent at the camp before —  but she’s seen enough to know the dangers, the difficulties, the fear —  not being able to go to the toilet after a certain time, sleeping with her belongings wrapped in her arms, with her baby.

We find Syrine’s suitcase and bags parked outside the hotel. She comes out a few minutes later. Her face is made up. She looks European. It’s deliberate, for fear of police and discrimination. She pulls a hat over her son’s dark curls, speaking to him in English. Walking toward the train, she runs into friends on the street, another goodbye.

She made the same trip, just in the other direction, with her husband only months before. The closer we get, the more her face looks as if it will crumble —  her nervousness at the uncertainty that awaits her and her little baby lurching closer and closer each station we pass —  but it never does.

“I studied one year of architecture, then nursing, but now I think I want to be a mechanic,” she had told us in the days before.

Off the train, she gathers herself again, struggling to collapse the buggy into a taxi as the driver tuts impatiently, the hinges catching on baby toys —  as ever, she holds her cool —  once again methodically packing her life belongings.

 

*Syrine and Salah are false names used to protect real identities.

 

Izzy Tomico Ellis is a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster in 2016 and is currently based in Greece. Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.