HUMAN RIGHTS AS A MISSING DISCOURSE

By Chiara Denaro

During a visit to the island of Lampedusa, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to address the surge in migrant arrivals. 

The action plan by Von der Leyen was nothing new: a further attack on the right to leave and to seek asylum. “Preventing departures” and “stopping sea arrivals” were the main slogans. The ten-point action plan was also not a surprise but fully aligned with the already existing cornerstones of EU policies on border management, migration, and asylum.

Against a background of progressive undermining of the right to asylum, Von Der Leyen stressed the will of further involvement of EU agencies (EUAA and Frontex) in the identification procedures of migrants (point 1) – which includes the attribution of the initial juridical status of “asylum seekers” versus “people not in need of protection” – with the aim of quickly rejecting applications that are unfounded (point 7) and repatriating those who are not eligible for asylum to the countries of origin (point 3).

Being aware of the actual lack of repatriation agreements with most of them – Von der Leyen mentioned that Vice President Margaritis Schinas will engage in further negotiation efforts.

Photo: von der Leyen and Meloni meeting in Lampedusa, September 17, 2023. Photo: Fellipe Lopes

The dismantling of asylum guarantees has been in place for years through the strategic use of the “safe country of origin” criterion as an obstacle to accessing asylum. Those who come from SCOs are mostly prevented from seeking asylum and are almost automatically channelled through pathways of detention aimed at deportation. When they manage to overcome these obstacles, they face “accelerated procedures,”, which further limit their access to adequate information and legal assistance – both before the commission hearing and in case of a negative decision. Amongst the most worrisome provisions introduced by Italian Law 50/2023, is the extension of time limits for detention for asylum seekers coming from countries that are strategically re-defined as “safe” (art. 6 bis, art. 7), which – in order to become real – is leading to the multiplication of detention spaces, whose juridical status remains unclear.

For those who manage to overcome all these obstacles, by conquering the right to remain, the commissioner urged the other MSs to accept transfers of migrants from Italy, through the Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism (point 2). In the meantime, EU countries such as Germany and France declared their unavailability to receive migrants, making this statement no more than empty words. The same feeling was raised by Von der Leyen’s remarks on legal pathways and humanitarian corridors, to be increased as an anti-smuggling instrument (point 8).

Another key point of the speech was – as usual – the struggle against “smugglers and traffickers.” On this point, the commissioner mentioned the will to update the legal framework – namely the already critical “facilitation directive” (point 4) and the need to act against the “logistics of the smugglers,” by destroying recuperated boats and dinghies (point 6). This last remark sounded particularly hypocritical, as the majority of them are already extremely unseaworthy before the departure, and just get destroyed during the crossings.

Finally, about border management and externalization policies, she mentioned the intention of strengthening maritime and aerial surveillance (point 4), also through the supply of additional equipment to the Tunisian Coast Guard (point 5) in the frame of the implementation of the MoU, the contracting of new projects and the disbursement of funds to Tunisia (point 10). Just the day after the speech, the Memorandum was judged irregular by the Council of the European Union, as signed “without respecting the procedures.” In particular the EU Council’s authorization was missing, namely the agreement of all the other EU member states. Of course, the political situation in Tunisia, the lack of basic guarantees and freedom of the rule of law, as well as the systematic life-threatening violence against black people, which is more and more often followed by deportation to desert buffer zones which already caused several deaths, were missing discourses. Any EU responsibility in these human rights violations was washed up by UNHCR and IOM presence there, “to ensure the protection of migrants along the route” and “to increase assisted voluntary returns” (point 9).

Despite being presented as a press conference, the Meloni and Von der Leyen speeches left almost no space for questions by journalists. Only two questions were allowed to be posed, and neither raised any human rights concerns. Systematic border violence and human rights violations were missing. Search and rescue operations also remained unmentioned, as well as the duty to disembark rescued people in countries where they cannot be exposed to human rights violations, such as Libya and Tunisia.

“We will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers,” Von der Leyen said in Lampedusa. Beyond sounding a colonial and racist statement, this is just unrealistic.

People will continue to courageously challenge and overcome violent and deadly borders every day. People will keep struggling to exercise their right to leave and to choose where to leave, asking for dignity and freedom.And we will keep standing by their side!

Demonstration in Lampedusa, September 2023, Photo: Maldusa

Article published in Echoes#8 – Struggles for Freedom of Movement