Deaths at Sea – Asylum Seekers and Illegal Entry

August 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

(Residents and police try to rescue refugees from an asylum boat being smashed by violent seas against the jagged coastline of Australia’s Christmas Island Photo: AP)

This month disturbing news revealed that 54 people died in an attempt to reach Italy from Libya by boat, one man from Eritrea survived, the rest perished from dehydration in a 15 day ordeal.

This blog aims to provide a legal and realistic narrative of the reasons why deaths at sea continue to occur and who is to be held accountable.

A Personal Account

Before I begin this blog, I want to draw attention to a story I came across during my reading. It is written by a Somali woman who was smuggled into Europe. Her personal account exposes some of the realities of smuggling and the dangers people face in escaping persecution.

“I remember living a medium life. Me, my husband and eight children. I remember my baby calling, “Mama, mama”. Quite normal.… But the war breaks. We fled. Far away to south Somalia….Two months on. Everything’s out of hand. We run away from the civil war. Me, my husband and eight children.… And we go from Somalia by boat towards Kenya. But suddenly the boat is sinking. The boat is overloaded…. The boat broke. Water breaking into us…. I can’t swim. The boat sinks. Who will rescue us?…. 200 people are dying, drowning. I’m losing my family to the sea. Five of my daughters are lost…. And my eldest son, he’s just begun his life, he’s finished university. He’s lost. That makes six of my children. Dead in the sea, in one day.… Suddenly, an Italian tourist boat is passing.… people come to rescue us. They grab my baby, who I’m holding. And another child of mine…. All the time my baby’s calling “Mama, mama.” Suddenly, I am hauled into the boat like a baby myself…. I am crying. My whole body. Crying.… Do you hear me?… I cannot forget that day. Although I’m here before you today, you can’t have imagined the life of one Somali woman.…  am breaking my silence. The world should know my life, my baby calling “Mama, mama”. The world should hear this life.” Found in research commissioned by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in the UK (ICAR) at http://www.icar.org.uk/somalicommunityreport.pdf

The Factual Reality

Though the above stories are horrendous, it’s a narrative that continues to take place as persecuted individuals continue to employ criminal smugglers in attempts to find sanctuary within Europe. Figures from UNHCR show that since the 31st of January 2012 over 500 irregular migrants and refugees died attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea. Sadly, this figure is also likely to be higher as not all deaths are recorded (throwing dead bodies overboard is common) and death records are only accounted for in tales from survivors or through enquiries from family members looking for missing persons.  Unfortunately the majority of people smuggled into the UK and Europe are those seeking refuge from conflict ridden countries.

The stark reality is that despite the right to ‘seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution’ as enshrined by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), when conflicts erupt or it is likely that there will be an influx of people from a particular country, the UK government introduces stringent visa requirements and this is paralleled throughout Europe.

This can be seen in the UK Border Agency’s (UKBA) current list of countries requiring visa entry for the UK, which includes many refugee producing countries. Unfortunately given the nature of refugees, (in that most come from politically unstable countries) seeking visas from British embassies within their own countries is often impossible. Currently included on the UKBA’s list is Somalia, yet Somali’s cannot obtain passports, let alone British visas and UNHCR recently reported that a boat was still at sea carrying 50 Somali and Eritrean people attempting to reach Italy. Other countries such as Iran and China are also listed, yet within these countries the State is the persecutor from whom people seek to escape, therefore obtaining travel documents or visas can be dangerous to the applicant or the family they leave behind.

Consequently, legal entry, for the majority of asylum seekers, is unfeasible:  in essence the worse the situation in the country of origin, the more difficult it is to gain entry to the UK or Europe. As a result of this, the activities of criminal smugglers have prospered and human rights abuses have increased. Amnesty International estimates that every year, four million people are trafficked or smuggled across international borders- the value of this criminal trade is estimated at approximately $US10 billion per year.

Illegal entry and the rising death toll can be addressed as a three- fold problem:

-the first (as cited above) is due to visa requirements for entrants from refugee producing countries;

-the second is the failure of the UK government and other European States to provide sufficient resettlement programs;

-and thirdly the increased security of Europe’s external borders forces asylum seekers to find ever more complex and dangerous methods of entry.

Resettlement

In 2004 the UK government, in partnership with UNHCR, set up a refugee resettlement scheme (under Section 59 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act) which provides 500 resettlement places to those refugees most in need throughout the world, this has since been increased to 750 places.

Currently sixteen European countries provide resettlement to refugees, yet they only provide 8% of global resettlement places. 90% of places are provided by the three top resettlement countries: the United States, Australia and Canada. Recently the European Union adopted the EU resettlement program, which intends to co-ordinate, harmonize and increase the number of resettlement places offered throughout Europe. However the number of resettlement places has not increased in parallel with the number of countries needing the resettlement of citizens. UNHCR estimates that 800,000 refugees are in need of resettlement places each year, far more than the places available, the result being that only one in ten refugees in need of resettlement will secure protection through the programs.

Border Control and Smuggling

As discussed, illegal entry is often the only resort of those who wish to escape their country and find refuge. In attempting to do so, asylum seekers commonly employ criminal smugglers to smuggle them across the borders to a new life. This often involves extortionate amounts of money and the sacrifice of safety, putting individuals and families at the mercy of criminal smugglers. Contrary to popular opinion, the poorest members of societies within these conflict ridden countries often can’t afford to pay people smugglers, thus the majority of asylum seekers who reach the UK or Europe in this way come from wealthier backgrounds. Often individuals pay for the journey with their life savings, their family’s life savings or community contributions, and in some instances it can cost them their lives. Causes of death can be due to a number of circumstances such as: extreme weather; unseaworthy boats; beatings from smugglers; drowning; starvation; dehydration; suffocation and in some cases suicide out of desperation.

The increase in European and UK border control makes entering Europe progressively difficult, the visa restrictions and increased security has gained media attention as “Fortress Europe” which propels smugglers further in finding extreme methods of trafficking people across the borders.

Within the Schengen area of Europe external borders in terms of sea, land and air, are guarded by Frontex who employ a border surveillance system and European Border Guard Teams, whose mission is to reduce the number of irregular migrants entering the country.  The UK has its own border agency the UKBA who employ over 23,500 staff in protecting the UK’s borders.

Legal Responsibility

There is a legal framework for people crossing the borders by boat which divides responsibility between Shipmasters, and State parties:

Two Conventions: The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) place the Shipmaster under an obligation to assist those in distress at sea, regardless of any circumstances such as nationality etc.

In terms of State parties, several international conventions obligate them to ensure appropriate rescue arrangements for distress calls received within their area of responsibility. These include:

– 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 98(2) (UNCLOS)

– 1974 International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, Chapter V, Regulation 7 (SOLAS)

– 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, Chapters 2.1.10 and 1.3.2 (SAR)

The State must aim to relieve the Shipmasters of responsibility by arranging disembarkation of those rescued as soon as possible. The State responsible for those rescued depends on the SAR region in which the survivors were recovered, the State responsible must provide a place of safety for survivors. Disembarkation should not be delayed for procedures such as screening or status assessment. (Guidelines on Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea – Resolution MSC 167(78).

For further information see the following guidelines: http://www.marisec.org/rescueatsea.pdf

International Refugee Law

Though there is a right for individuals to seek asylum, as enshrined by Article 14 of the UDHR, there is no corresponding obligation upon States to grant asylum. The word ‘receive’ was removed from the UDHR on the premise that member State’s should retain their sovereignty in being able to decide who could enter their territory. Therefore international refugee and human rights law does not offer any concrete protection for refugees until they enter the territory in which they seek refuge. As a result, the onus is on the refugee themselves to escape persecution.

As a consequence of this, States are able to introduce stringent visa measures for refugee producing countries.  The reasons behind this are obvious in that no member State wants an influx of asylum seekers from a particular country. Once this occurs within Europe the first member State to receive applicants remains responsible for those individuals in processing their application and offering them refuge (via the Dublin Regulation – which is why Italy’s refugee system is under intense pressure). The politics of the situation seems like a playground quarrel and ultimately that’s what it is, clearly if all member State’s removed visa restrictions, some of the barriers for entry would be removed, but there is no legal requirement to do this and therefore it is unlikely this will ever happen.

As can be seen the protection for those residing in conflict ridden countries is relatively weak, however once applicants reach the State in which they seek sanctuary, Article 33 of the International Convention on the Status of Refugees (‘Geneva Convention’) becomes active. Article 33 is the right to ‘non-refoulement’ which means that once an applicant is under a State’s jurisdiction they cannot be returned to a territory ‘where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.‘  Consequently State’s must process an individual’s asylum claim before returning them to their country of origin. If they satisfy the member State’s requirements for refugee status they will be allowed to remain.

Escape

Article 33 of the Geneva Convention is seen to be ‘the cornerstone’ of refugee protection. Read in conjunction with Article 14 of the UDHR it offers significant protection to those who manage to escape their country and reach sanctuary. International maritime law also aims to protect those who take to the seas in seeking safety. But that protection only starts once people start their journey, and as shown above, even with that protection people continue to lose their lives.

As discussed there are many barriers for asylum seekers in reaching sanctuary. With no legal framework of absolute responsibility for member States to offer resettlement, or to remove visa requirements, the onus of responsibility for the safety of refugees realistically remains upon themselves. Though their countries of origin are ultimately responsible, in the real world safety does not become apparent until refugees start their perilous journey to sanctuary.

 

– Katie Bales

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