By Monique Bouffé
#refugeeboats #lampedusa #Mediterranean ‘#GMABlog #JeSuisUnRéfugié
A couple of weeks ago, yet another boat filled with refugees trying to reach Europe capsized, confirming the deaths of almost 700 people. It is unlikely that we will ever find out their names or whether they left families behind in their attempt to live free or war and persecution; families who will never know if their sisters, husbands, wives or children ever made it to the safe haven of the European Union.
To call the response inadequate would be a gross understatement. Various statements were made; the EU called for ‘urgent action’, politicians tweeted their sympathies (although one wonders whether they were more concerned with the burden of refugees who survived than those who did not) and the European Council came up with a ‘ten point plan’ after a thoroughly disappointing emergency summit.
A tangible and humane response failed to appear. Compare this to the downing of the MH17 flight or the Charlie Hebdo attacks, where countries went into national mourning and where we learned the personal information and stories of the victims to sympathise with the families and comprehend the severity of their loss. Triton (the Mediterranean border control/rescue operation) has not been significantly enlarged, campaign slogans advocating stricter immigration controls have not been removed and we certainly do not see thousands of people crowding the streets shouting “Je suis un réfugié.”
The reason for this is something everyone knows, but no-one wants to admit. On the safe side of the Mediterranean, we look across the water through the camera lens at war and chaos that is currently ravaging the Middle East. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 1,757 people have died seeking refuge across the water in 2015 alone. But the ugly truth is that we do not care about these figures. The fact is that by stamping the label of ‘refugee’ on someone, it silently and automatically legitimises any tragedy that may befall them. They become part of the circle of life; something we can sympathise with, but is ultimately out of our control.
Most disturbing is that the current situation – at least in part – is by our own design. The British and Italian governments have subverted fundamental human rights law to their own financial political benefit and to the detriment of hundreds who might have been saved. This subversion is done under the guise of adherence to the non-refoulement obligations that all nations have under international law.
This obligation requires that as soon as a refugee sets foot on the sovereign territory of another state, that state cannot send that person back before assessing their situation and their right to claim asylum. To avoid this, the UK and Italian governments have stopped funding rescue missions, ensuring that thousands of asylum seekers will drown at sea so that their feet literally never touch ground.
When did the drowning of people by a state become an acceptable policy, and why is it not causing outrage amongst the European Community?
The short answer is that the lives of refugees are worth less than ours. We were the lucky ones, by being born on to a land that purely by historical accident has achieved relative political stability. We might be aware we did not earn our privilege; we might even care just enough to sympathise, but we do not feel any obligation to help those who ‘lost’ the lottery of birthplace. Through politics and media we have become anaesthetized to the plight of our fellow humans who seek refuge from persecution and war, and instead feel we owe nothing to anyone who is not, by birth, a European.
This is elitism at best, persecution at worst. The territorial borders of the EU must exist; the borders of humanity should not exist at all. Of course it is true that states must balance situations beyond their borders against their internal welfare capacity. But the answers to this have already been laid out for them. Simple steps such as enhancing cooperation to share the financial and logistical burden amongst all 28 Member States and collectively increasing funding of rescue operations would provide tools to cope with a crisis, saving hundreds, more likely thousands of lives in the process.
Politicians are instead choosing the easy way out, advocating death based purely on nationality. That should never be an option. Moreover, the silent response from EU citizens show just how little we care about people who were born outside our narrow concept of civilisation. It is outrageous, and it is murderous.
Would you choose to have an asylum seeker live in Europe as your neighbour, or would you choose to kill them on their way over? If you prefer the latter, there is probably a great job open for you in a Foreign Ministry. After all, why shouldn’t there be? Your life is inherently worth more because you are European. The mentality that caused the loss of thousands of lives in the past is holding steadfast in the 21st Century. I just wonder how long it will take for us to realise that.
Monique Bouffé is a LLM student in Leiden University studying Public International Law. Her interests include the status of internally displaced persons in non-international armed conflict and the protection of refugees resulting from environmental crises. After her degree she intends to work for a non-governmental organisation giving legal aid to refugees and putting pressure on States to comply with their non-refoulement obligations. In her spare time she enjoys travelling and occasionally plays the guitar in her local restaurants in The Hague.