One year on: a distress call for human rights

, by Silvia Dalla Ragione

One year on: a distress call for human rights
Mare Nostrum rescue operation off the North African Coast, 2014. Credit: Massimo Sestini

In 2019, the Council of Europe published the Recommendation: ‘Lives saved. Rights protected’. The Recommendation, which is a non-legally binding act within the European Union, aimed to protect refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Member states of the Council of Europe must, in fact, rescue people and protect their rights. Therefore, the aim of the Recommendation was to give suggestions on how states can operate to ensure these rights. In particular, the Recommendation emphasises the lack of responsibility taken by European states for the reception of refugees.

In the follow-up report ‘A distress call for human rights’, published in March 2021, the Council of Europe has made an analysis of the effective developments of the human rights situation in the Mediterranean over the last year. This follow-up report takes into account the 5 major areas first proposed in the Recommendation.

The follow-up

The first area is ‘effective search and rescue’, whose objective is to offer rescue to migrants at sea. In 2019, the Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, asked member states to cooperate during rescue operations and to fully use ships and other assets available to give assistance along the migrant routes. As of December 31st 2020, no additional ships have been employed to rescue people in the main Central Mediterranean route. The apparent lack of rescue resources is aggravated by what appears to be an inadequate response to emergency situations.

The second aspect concerns the safe and prompt disembarkation of migrants. In the 2019 Recommendation, the Commissioner asked for disembarkations to happen in safe places, where people could be defended under maritime, human rights, and refugee law. The omission of the Council of Europe and its lack of surveillance at sea allows disembarkations in Libya, which is not a safe place due to continuous violation of human rights against refugees and migrants within the country.

Furthermore, pushbacks are on the rise. For instance, there have been multiple reports of pushbacks by the Hellenic Coast Guard, which left rafts drifting back to Turkey. This led people to try and cross the sea from Lebanon to Cyprus, whose authorities rejected migrants. In addition to pushbacks there have been delays in disembarkation, caused by poor coordination, which often occur in Malta and in Italy as they cannot send refugees and migrants back.

Co-operation with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) is the topic of the third point of the Recommendation. In 2019, the Commissioner asked the Council of Europe to co-operate with NGOs on rescue operations, and to protect human rights at sea. However, authorities refused to co-operate and have shown a reluctance to ask for assistance from NGOs, due to a fear of Libyan interception, spies, or terrorists in disguise. Take, for example, the famous case of Italy. In August 2019, the updated Security Decree was approved. This decree allows the Minister of the Interior, Defence and Transport to prohibit the entrance or the docking of foreign ships, but sanctions would not apply if vessels communicate the rescue operations and stay in line with international standards.

In regard to the fourth area, the Commissioner recorded that co-operation with non-EU countries on migration could put the human rights of refugees and migrants at risk. This fear comes from the possibility of interceptions by countries over which the Council of Europe does not have any power or control. For this reason, it is important for member states to guarantee transparency. Despite its human rights violations, Libya still represents an important player in migration relationships in the Mediterranean. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Libya and Italy has been immediately extended for another three years, representing some kind of progress, yet no changes were included. Following the MoU, Malta signed another MoU with Libya, laying the foundation for a new form of enhanced teamwork. Yet, there is still a lack of safeguarding guidelines, which is a concern for the Commissioner.

The last chapter covers safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. The Commissioner suggested that the lack of safe routes in the Mediterranean has caused the current human rights situation for refugees crossing the Mediterranean. The Commissioner hence advised member states to take into account the possibility of expanding humanitarian visas and other mechanisms to create safe and legal routes. Over the last year there seems to be some progress, due to the aid of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), EU member states, and other non-EU member states. However, the Covid-19 pandemic suspended the resettlement of safe and legal routes, which has not yet been restored. The Commissioner therefore has suggested starting to resettle the pathway schemes and lift restrictions on family reunification.

Taking responsibility of human rights

In conclusion, although some positive change has been made, the overall situation for migrants in the Mediterranean has deteriorated so far. The cooperation between member states and Libya should be revised, as well as the cooperation between member states and NGOs, which seems to be controversial as each state has a different stance on their effectiveness. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequential restrictions has made it more difficult to find solutions to the Commissioner’s calls.

The Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that it is important for member states to stop delaying saving lives, as a matter of life or death, and for members states to remain reliable in their commitment to human rights.

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