ZIE NOOT 54
”Push-backs are a set of state measures by which refugees and migrants are forced back over a border – generally immediately after they crossed it – without consideration of their individual circumstances and without any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken. Push-backs violate – among other laws – the prohibition of collective expulsions stipulated in the European Convention on Human Rights.”
EUROPEAN CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL ANDHUMAN RIGHTS
THE GUARDIANREVEALED: 2000 REFUGEE DEATHS LINKED TO ILLEGALEU PUSHBACKS
A Guardian analysis finds EU countries used brutal tactics to stop nearly 40,000 asylum seekers crossing borders
EU member states have used illegal operations to push back at least 40,000 asylum seekers from Europe’s borders during the pandemic, methods being linked to the death of more than 2,000 people, the Guardian can reveal.
In one of the biggest mass expulsions in decades, European countries, supported by EU’s border agency Frontex, has systematically pushed back refugees, including children fleeing from wars, in their thousands, using illegal tactics ranging from assault to brutality during detention or transportation.
The Guardian’s analysis is based on reports released by UN agencies, combined with a database of incidents collected by non-governmental organisations. According to charities, with the onset of Covid-19, the regularity and brutality of pushback practices has grown.Advertisement
“Recent reports suggest an increase of deaths of migrants attempting to reach Europe and, at the same time, an increase of the collaboration between EU countries with non-EU countries such as Libya, which has led to the failure of several rescue operations,’’ said one of Italy’s leading human rights and immigration experts, Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, professor of asylum law at the University of Palermo. ‘’In this context, deaths at sea since the beginning of the pandemic are directly or indirectly linked to the EU approach aimed at closing all doors to Europe and the increasing externalisation of migration control to countries such as Libya.’’
The findings come as the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, Olaf, has launched an investigation into Frontex over allegations of harassment, misconduct and unlawful operations aimed at stopping asylum seekers from reaching EU shores.
According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2020 almost 100,000 immigrants arrived in Europe by sea and by land compared with nearly 130,000 in 2019 and 190,000 in 2017.
Since January 2020, despite the drop in numbers, Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have accelerated their hardline migration agenda. Since the introduction of partial or complete border closures to halt the outbreak of coronavirus, these countries have paid non-EU states and enlisted private vessels to intercept boats in distress at sea and push back passengers into detention centres. There have been repeated reports of people being beaten, robbed, stripped naked at frontiers or left at sea.
In 2020 Croatia, whose police patrol the EU’s longest external border, have intensified systemic violence and pushbacks of migrants to Bosnia. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) recorded nearly 18,000 migrants pushed back by Croatia since the start of the pandemic. Over the last year and a half, the Guardian has collected testimonies of migrants who have allegedly been whipped, robbed, sexually abused and stripped naked by members of the Croatian police. Some migrants said they were spray-painted with red crosses on their heads by officers who said the treatment was the “cure against coronavirus”.Advertisement
According to an annual report released on Tuesday by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a coalition of 13 NGOs documenting illegal pushbacks in the western Balkans, abuse and disproportionate force was present in nearly 90% of testimonies in 2020 collected from Croatia, a 10% increase on 2019.
In April, the Guardian revealed how a woman from Afghanistan was allegedly sexually abused and held at knifepoint by a Croatian border police officer during a search of migrants on the border with Bosnia.
“Despite the European Commission’s engagement with Croatian authorities in recent months, we have seen virtually no progress, neither on investigations of the actual reports, nor on the development of independent border monitoring mechanisms,” said Nicola Bay, DRC country director for Bosnia. “Every single pushback represents a violation of international and EU law – whether it involves violence or not.”
Since January 2020, Greece has pushed back about 6,230 asylum seekers from its shores, according to data from BVMN. The report stated that in 89% of the pushbacks, “BVMN has observed the disproportionate and excessive use of force. This alarming number shows that the use of force in an abusive, and therefore illicit, way has become a normality […]
“Extremely cruel examples of police violence documented in 2020 included prolonged excessive beatings (often on naked bodies), water immersion, the physical abuse of women and children, the use of metal rods to inflict injury.”
In testimonies, people described how their hands were tied to the bars of cells and helmets put on their heads before beatings to avoid visible bruising.
A lawsuit filed against the Greek state in April at the European court of human rights accused Athens of abandoning dozens of migrants in life rafts at sea, after some had been beaten. The case claims that Greek patrol boats towed migrants back to Turkish waters and abandoned them at sea without food, water, lifejackets or any means to call for help.
BVMN said: “Whether it be using the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown to serve as a cover for pushbacks, fashioning open-air prisons, or preventing boats from entering Greek waters by firing warning shots toward boats, the evidence indicates the persistent refusal to uphold democratic values, human rights and international and European law.”
According to UNHCR data, since the start of the pandemic, Libyan authorities – with Italian support since 2017, when Rome ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya – intercepted and pushed back to Tripoli about 15,500 asylum seekers. The controversial strategy has caused the forced return of thousands to Libyan detention centres where, according to first hand reports, they face torture. Hundreds have drowned when neither Libya nor Italy intervened.
“In 2020 this practice continued, with an increasingly important role being played by Frontex planes, sighting boats at sea and communicating their position to the Libyan coastguard,” said Matteo de Bellis, migration researcher at Amnesty International. “So, while Italy at some point even used the pandemic as an excuse to declare that its ports were not safe for the disembarkation of people rescued at sea, it had no problem with the Libyan coastguard returning people to Tripoli. Even when this was under shelling or when hundreds were forcibly disappeared immediately after disembarkation.”
In April, Italy and Libya were accused of deliberately ignoring a mayday call from a migrant boat in distress in Libyan waters, as waves reached six metres. A few hours later, an NGO rescue boat discovered dozens of bodies floating in the waves. That day 130 migrants were lost at sea.
In April, in a joint investigation with the Italian Rai News and the newspaper Domani, the Guardian saw documents from Italian prosecutors detailing conversations between two commanders of the Libyan coastguard and an Italian coastguard officer in Rome. The transcripts appeared to expose the non-responsive behaviour of the Libyan officers and their struggling to answer the distress calls which resulted in hundreds of deaths. At least five NGO boats remain blocked in Italian ports as authorities claim administrative reasons for holding them.
“Push- and pull-back operations have become routine, as have forms of maritime abandonment where hundreds were left to drown,’’ said a spokesperson at Alarm Phone, a hotline service for migrants in distress at sea. ‘’We have documented so many shipwrecks that were never officially accounted for, and so we know that the real death toll is much higher. In many of the cases, European coastguards have refused to respond – they rather chose to let people drown or to intercept them back to the place they had risked their lives to escape from. Even if all European authorities try to reject responsibility, we know that the mass dying is a direct result of both their actions and inactions. These deaths are on Europe.’’UK accused of stranding vulnerable refugees after BrexitRead more
Malta, which declared its ports closed early last year, citing the pandemic, has continued to push back hundreds of migrants using two strategies: enlisting private vessels to intercept asylum seekers and force them back to Libya or turning them away with directions to Italy.
“Between 2014 and 2017, Malta was able to count on Italy to take responsibility for coordinating rescues and allowing disembarkations,” said De Bellis. “But when Italy and the EU withdrew their ships from the central Mediterranean, to leave it in Libya’s hands, they left Malta more exposed. In response, from early 2020 the Maltese government used tactics to avoid assisting refugees and migrants in danger at sea, including arranging unlawful pushbacks to Libya by private fishing boats, diverting boats rather than rescuing them, illegally detaining hundreds of people on ill-equipped ferries off Malta’s waters, and signing a new agreement with Libya to prevent people from reaching Malta.”Advertisement
Last May, a series of voice messages obtained by the Guardian confirmed the Maltese government’s strategy to use private vessels, acting at the behest of its armed forces, to intercept crossings and return refugees to Libyan detention centres.
In February 2020, the European court of human rights was accused of “completely ignoring the reality” after it ruled Spain did not violate the prohibition of collective expulsion, as asylum applications could be made at the official border crossing point. Relying on this judgment, Spain’s constitutional court upheld “border rejections” provided certain safeguards apply.
Last week, the bodies of 24 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were found by Spain’s maritime rescue. They are believed to have died of dehydration while attempting to reach the Canary Islands. In 2020, according to the UNHCR, 788 migrants died trying to reach Spain.
Frontex said they couldn’t comment on the total figures without knowing the details of each case, but said various authorities took action to respond to the dinghy that sunk off the coast of Libya in April, resulting in the deaths of 130 people.
“The Italian rescue centre asked Frontex to fly over the area. It’s easy to forget, but the central Mediterranean is massive and it’s not easy or fast to get from one place to another, especially in poor weather. After reaching the area where the boat was suspected to be, they located it after some time and alerted all of the Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres (MRCCs) in the area. They also issued a mayday call to all boats in the area (Ocean Viking was too far away to receive it).”
He said the Italian MRCC, asked by the Libyan MRCC, dispatched three merchant vessels in the area to assist. Poor weather made this difficult. “In the meantime, the Frontex plane was running out of fuel and had to return to base. Another plane took off the next morning when the weather allowed, again with the same worries about the safety of the crew.
“All authorities, certainly Frontex, did all that was humanly possible under the circumstances.”
He added that, according to media reports, there was a Libyan coast guard vessel in the area, but it was engaged in another rescue operation.
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”Since January 2020, despite the drop in numbers, Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have accelerated their hardline migration agenda. Since the introduction of partial or complete border closures to halt the outbreak of coronavirus, these countries have paid non-EU states and enlisted private vessels to intercept boats in distress at sea and push back passengers into detention centres.”
THE GUARDIANREVEALED: 2000 REFUGEE DEATHS LINKED TO ILLEGALEU PUSHBACKS
ZIE VOOR GEHELE TEKST, NOOT 58
THE GUARDIANA MAYDAY CALL, A DASH ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN….AND 130 SOULS LOST AT SEA
Last week, a dinghy full of migrants sank near Libya. Those who were part of the rescue mission tell of a needless tragedy
The weather was already turning when the distress call went out. A rubber dinghy with 130 people onboard was adrift in the choppy Mediterranean waters.
On the bridge of the Ocean Viking, one of the only remaining NGO rescue boats operational in the Mediterranean, 121 nautical miles west, stood Luisa Albera, staring anxiously at her computer screen and then out at the rising storm and falling light at sea.
When the distress call from Alarm Phone, the volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline, was received late on Wednesday, the Ocean Viking was already engaged in a rescue mission. All day the crew had been combing the horizon for another vessel, a wooden boat with 42 people onboard, but so far their search had been in vain. No sign of life or position had been received since early morning.Advertisement
A seasoned sailor who had already conducted dozens of rescue missions, Albera knew that time was short. A violent storm was coming, and it would take the Viking hours to reach the dinghy.
She also knew that if the they didn’t turn around, the 130 people onboard would most likely be left to die. At 5.30pm, the Ocean Viking abandoned its search for the other vessel and altered its course: Albera had decided to go after the rubber boat.
“These decisions we are forced to make are life-and-death decisions,” said Albera, the search and rescue coordinator for SOS Méditerranée, the NGO that operates the Ocean Viking. “It is never easy to abandon a search but we had an updated position on the dinghy and there was a chance we could make it. I have to live with these decisions every day. It’s a burden I shouldn’t have to shoulder.”
As night fell, the sea turned hostile. Two hours later, the Ocean Viking was plunging through 5-metre (16ft) waves towards the last known position of the dinghy. Then, the call they were dreading came. An anonymous mayday signal was received, an urgent call for all ships in the area to divert and attempt a rescue of those onboard the rubber craft. It was last located in the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone so Albera called the Libyan authorities to request help. They refused to confirm whether they would be assisting, or to give the Viking any updates on the dinghy’s position.
She next called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), and the European border agency, Frontex. Neither replied.
“It’s very rare for any of the authorities in Libya or Italy to agree to help. Sometimes you can get lucky and you can catch someone who might be persuaded on a human level to provide assistance but it’s still rare,” she said.
As the storm raged and lashed around them and the boat was violently tossed from side to side, below deck the medical team went through inventory checks of supplies and first-aid drills to treat multiple casualties. “We knew we wouldn’t arrive until morning. If there would be any survivors they would have been in the water for hours. They would be freezing, seasick and have hypothermia,” says Tanguy Louppe, a former soldier and firefighter turned sea rescuer and who now heads the search and rescue team on the Ocean Viking.
Yet the mood had changed onboard the Viking. Without immediate assistance, both the deteriorating weather conditions and the darkness would mean that the boat would capsize or be torn apart. The Viking continued to power through the waves, but the storm was making progress painfully slow. Every hour that went by, the chance of finding anyone alive was slipping away.
Louppe gathered the crew together and told them to prepare for a mass casualty plan. “We know we won’t be there until morning. We have to expect the worst,” he told them.
On the bridge, Albera was clinging on to hope. Three merchant boats had also responded to the mayday call. None of them would be able to carry out a rescue, but if they located the rubber dinghy they might be able to give it shelter until the Viking arrived.
At 5am on Thursday, the Viking finally reached the last-known location of the dinghy. With no sign of any help from the Italian or Libyan authorities, the three merchant vessels had coordinated their efforts to mount a search, and once again Albera called Frontex to request aerial support to assist.
For over six hours, the four ships scoured the waves for any sign of life. Then, at 12.24pm, one of the merchant vessels radioed to say that three people had been spotted in the water. Ten minutes later, Frontex announced that it had spotted the remains of a boat.
When Albera and her crew arrived, they found a scene of desolation: an open cemetery in an otherwise breathtakingly pretty, deep blue sea.
The rubber boat hadn’t stood a chance against the fury of the storm. The deck of the boat had disappeared. Only a few grey floating buoys remained. Around them, dozens of lifeless bodies floated in the waves. The Ocean Viking, with a team of trained rescuers and medics onboard, had arrived too late. Among the men, women and children they found in the water, there were no survivors.
This stretch of sea has become a morgue for thousands of people trying to reach Europe on cheap wooden boats or fragile pieces of rubber thatcannot withstand the elements or the political indifference that seals their fate.
Since 2014, 17,664 people have lost their lives crossing the central Mediterranean. This week another 130 were added to the death toll.
The crew of the Viking have been through this before but the scale left them stunned. “We are heartbroken,” Albera said. “We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.’’
On Friday, as news of the tragedy made headlines around the world, Frontex issued a rare statement to Italian press agency Ansa, confirming that they had issued the mayday signal and defending their response to the tragedy.
“Frontex immediately alerted national rescue centres in Italy, Malta and Libya, as required by international law,” it said.
The agency said in its statement that it had “issued several distress calls on the marine emergency radio channel to alert all vessels in the vicinity due to the critical situation and bad weather” and confirmed that it had sent out aerial support.
For Albera, the Frontex statement is an acknowledgement of the gravity of what happened that night. “This is the first time that Frontex has ever confirmed it sent a mayday because the situation was so grave,” says Albera. “They knew the boat had no chance of making it.”
Alarm Phone, who initially sent out the first alarm signal, claims it was in contact with the dinghy for over 10 hours and repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public. “People could have been rescued but all authorities knowingly left them to die at sea,” it said. The United Nations migration agency also condemned the inaction. “The lack of an efficient patrolling system is undeniable and unacceptable,” Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy’s spokesman for the UN migration agency, said on Twitter. “Things need to change.”Advertisement
In 2017, Europe ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya as part of a deal struck between Italy and Libya aimed at reducing migrant flows across the sea.
Since then, Libyan authorities have been accused of ignoring distress calls or intercepting dinghies and returning people to detention centres in Libya, where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.Senior Libyan coastguard commander arrested for alleged human traffickingRead more
Since the start of 2018, there have been around 50 legal cases brought against NGO crew members or rescue vessels by the Italian and other European governments, and boats have been blocked in harbours or forced to remain at sea with migrants onboard.
For over 10 hours after they arrived at the wreck, Ocean Viking stayed with the bodies, waiting for instructions from the Libyan authorities. Since the dinghy sank in Libya’s search and rescue area, the responsibility for recovering those who had died fell to the Libyan MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center). If the Viking crew had tried to pull people from the water, then their entire mission may have been jeopardised. Yet no patrol boat arrived.
The decision to leave was, says Albera, traumatising for everyone onboard the Viking. “It is terrible burden to have to make that choice. We waited all day for instructions [or for a patrol boat to arrive]. There was nothing more we could do for those poor people,” she says.
Since 2016, the Ocean Viking and the Aquarius, the other SOS Méditerranée vessel, have saved 32,711 lives at sea. “We have to continue our mission, as this way there is a chance that we can prevent others from meeting the same fate,” says Albera. “But the decision to leave is something that all of us onboard will have to live with for ever.”
This article was amended on 25 April 2021. In an earlier version, a headline referred incorrectly to the Mediterranean as an ocean; the text referred to “6ft waves” rather than 5-metre (16ft) waves; and the Ocean Viking was wrongly stated to be owned by SOS Méditerranée.
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