What makes me illegal?

8 July 2017 | 06:03

What makes me illegal?

Refugees arriving in Kos - Photo: Christopher Jahn/IFRC

 

2017 marks the fifth anniversary of the migration management crisis in Europe. 

The lack of a consistent policy, combined with the growing pressure of new arrivals in frontline states - Italy and Greece, has stressed available resources. It has brought on the chaos. Now, we have several reported cases of illegal deportation and abuse. 

 

Greek and Italian governments could not count on an uniform migration and asylum policy framework. They adopted an emergency approach, which, because of systematic human rights violations, attracted criticisms from all sides, the EU, the European Court of Human Rights and NGOs.

 

In the meanwhile, the erosion of trust in national institutions has transformed migrants and refugees into scapegoats of party politics. In this way, not only politicians discuss migration management solely hand in hand with security policies, but also discrimination and stigmatization have become socially tolerable. 

 

The question of legality, in the context of mobility, has become open to discretionary interpretations. And eventually, migration is perceived as a zero-sum game: one side losses to the benefit of others.

 

After years of empty rhetoric and inability to find sustainable common solutions to manage mobility across the Mediterranean, there is a desperate need to take a look at the bigger picture.

 

Despite the security approach mainstreamed by national and regional authorities, people will continue to risk their lives to reach Mediterranean shores. Among them, there is Aziz.

 

Aziz is a young teenager from The Gambia, the country he left three years ago. 

 

The Gambia is one of the poorest countries ranked in the Human Development Index, with growing level of political instability and extremely high unemployment rates. It is part of the West African region, historically characterized by high level of interregional migration. Today, demographic pressure, environmental degradation, poverty and conflict are the main driving factors of the mass migration towards Europe.

  

Aziz is one of the 37,235 people that according to UNHCR arrived in Italy by sea between January and April 2017, and one of the 2850 (8%) Gambian whose asylum application is likely to be rejected. Italian authorities will probably classify him as “economic migrant”, with no direct entitlement to protection.

 

“Many problems, no job!” - that’s what he might say when asked why you left your country. However, behind these simple words, spelled in broken English, there is a web of tangled reasons. First son of a big family, he left school very early. He started working in the fields. One day, after a huge fight with his stepfather, he decided to leave to Senegal in the hope of a better life. Fourteen years old, with few money in his pockets, he did not dare to say goodbye to his mother “ She would have cried, and I do not like her to cry”. 

 

Aziz knew the guys “who help you out to reach Dakar”. Many of his friends already did the big journey: “everyone knows that if you are strong enough you can find a better life in North Africa, Europe or the US”. Geography does not really matter at this point. 

 

Senegal turned out to be a good place. After few days sleeping at the bus station, Aziz started his job: he helped people with their luggage. After few months, during the rainy season, life become harder and he decide to accept the offer of a man. This man promised good salary and better working condition in a country called Libya. Together with other 20 maybe 30 guys, Aziz spent four days in a pick up crossing the desert. Once arrived in Tripoli, he was assigned to an Arab man. The man forced Aziz to work as a constructor worker - 10,11,12 hours per day without even paying him. Crossing the Big River (ctr. The Mediterranean Sea) was the only way for Aziz to escape daily exploitation, violence and abuses.

 

He paid a one-way trip on a rubber boat nearly 800 dollars, the price for freedom. He survived, many others did not.

 

Assessing the multi-causal nature of the displacement described by Aziz - and many other West Africans people arriving in Italy - is obviously complicated. The complex interaction between political and economic forces is inevitably affecting the most vulnerable families in the region. Most importantly, climate change is forcibly increasing existing inequalities. 

 

Frequent droughts and floods, combined with land degradation and increasing desertification, are progressively destroying agriculture production, the primary source of livelihood in the region.

 

While climate change might not be the main casual factor for migration, it’s undoubtedly affecting the vulnerability of local population, who will have to find alternative means to survive. 

 

We should, therefore, start thinking of mobility as a coping mechanism, and as a form of resilience to chronic crisis and vulnerability. 

 

Due to the flourishing business of human traffickers and criminal networks, migration involves considerable risks and exposure to exploitation and violence.  

 

Responding to this mixed-migration phenomenon, where groups of “refugees” and “economic migrants” move and arrive together, has not been easy for frontline states. The overwhelmed reception system, combined with the inconsistent methods of processing asylum applications, has created chaos and abandoned thousands languishing in reception centres for months. 

 

Often left with no legal support and limited resources to survive, many of them escape centres and move across the country. Before, remind, along the journey to the EU, they experienced gradual displacement and systemic human rights abuses. 

 

This phenomenon might not fit into existing definitions or law categories. However, it can’t be ignored. It is not even a security threat, which justifies the framing as an issue of border management policy.

 

A protection-based system is the only way out to manage this epochal crisis. This is not, however, the approach that the EU and its member states share.

 

Thorough the past five years, the escalating migrations crisis has been testing the European commitment to human rights. Unfortunately, systemic violations of refugees and migrants’ rights perpetrated by European and African states, with impunity, suggest that human rights are not one of the priorities.

 

Whereas short-sighted policies addressing migratory flows as an invasion proved ineffective, socio-economic evidence suggests that migration from West Africa will not end soon. 

 

However, putting in place ad-hoc regional emergency development initiatives, while leaving free-space to economic exploitation seems not only contradictory but also counter-productive.

 

The lack of a common, coherent and harmonized policy, combined with the inability to create legal channels for mobility, has perpetuated the idea of migration as a zero-sum game, questioning basic human rights of people and eventually EU principles and the role of the EU within the international arena. 

 

The result was easily predictable: in frontline states, like Italy and Greece, “mass of invisibles” with no papers, no legal protection, no short-term solutions — like Aziz — live as outcasts, at the border of the society. And this is so for the very simple reasons of being “illegal”.


 

Cristina Cardarelli  is a UN fellow in Burkina Faso. She has a strong background in International Relations, with a focus on human rights, a MSc in International Relations theory from LSE and a MA in Human rights and Democracy in the MENA region from EIUC (European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights). In the past years, sha has collaborated with different NGOs in South Asia and worked as trainee at the European Parliament, DG EPRS. Her last research on human rights was developed in collaboration with Birzeit University, in Palestine. She is currently working as Assistant Campaigns Coordinator in a NGO based in Paris, helping the coordination of international human rights campaigns.

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