[Meron Estefanos is an Eritrean journalist, author and human rights activist.]
The last decade have witnessed an upsurge of Eritrean refugees taking to the Mediterranean Sea in search of a safety from repression and unlimited national service they are facing in their home country. However, in their flight from their home countries, these refuges have encountered several plights such as extortion by Eritrean and Sudanese security, sale to Rashaida human smugglers and traffickers, abduction while traveling or after arriving at a camp or their apartments. Out of desperation and to run away from the mistreatment on the hands of Libyan security, the refugees crowd into decrepit ships by unscrupulous smugglers for a huge amount of money. Consequently, the estimated number of Eritrean refugees drowned while trying to reach European ports has reached in thousands. There is a need to investigate the legal and practical reasons to the question as to why all these increasing numbers of would-be refugees and asylum seekers encountered serious danger at sea.
International Law and Refugees on High Seas
In accordance to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee must not be forcibly returned to a country where his or her life or freedom would be endangered, or to a country where he or she would not be protected against such return. Under the Convention on Search and Rescue also stated that that there is a clear obligation of Seafarers to rescue a ship in distress and deliver the people to a place of safety. However, the Convention has failed to specify whether the nearest suitable port, the next regular port of call, the ship’s home port is considered as a place of safety. Since allowing refugee or asylum seekers who has been rescued at the sea to disembark on one’s territory brings about obligations on the receiving states, in most case states are reluctant to accept such responsibility and they are not under positive obligation to open their doors.
Experts in this area pointed out that the contradiction on the intersection of the law of sea and refugee law thus leaves sea actors in an awkward position. On the one hand, sea actors are obliged by law to rescue people in a distressed ship, while at the same time states are not obliged to accept the refugees rescued at sea. The issue remains unresolved as to who has the responsibility for accepting asylum seekers rescued at sea, processing their claims, and providing a place of safety. Thus, these loopholes under the international law provided countries to enter into different agreement to tighten their borders to protect refugees from entering their ports through the sea.
Italy, in the first place and other European countries after, had signed bilateral agreements with the Libyan authorities to intercept illegal boats and that effect. The 2003 and 2004 agreements had a programme to send back undocumented migrants to their home country. As the result of this agreement, hundreds of Eritreans are deported back to their country where they faced persecution. Most importantly, there was also a crucial agreement was entered on December 2007 between Italy and Libya in which the Italian government had found a loophole to return migrants who have already left the Libyan coast.
The other important agreement worth noting in relation to refugees at sea is the Dublin II Regulation. In relation to people rescued on sea, this regulation places obligation to conduct asylum claims of landing migrants in the hands of Border States of the EU. Thus, Malta feels disadvantaged by the Dublin II Regulation. It pushed that there must be a burden sharing agreement among EU member states concerning the issue asylum seekers. To address this issue of burden sharing, the European Union through its agency FRONTEX also pushed for co-operation agreement with Libya with the aim of patrolling Libyan waters and brings intercepted migrants back to Libya.
As the result of these these skewed agreements and policies which are contrary to EU refugee regimes and the principle of non-refoulment a cornerstone of the international refugee protection, many refugees became victims of many violations of human rights, and death in the sea. Many Eritreans were intercepted by Italian sea patrol and returned back to Libya where they faced imprisonment in harsh conditions for years. Furthermore, hundreds of Eritreans who took the risk of crossing the sea out of desperation were exposed to a brutal death on the seas due to rough weather.
The Unintended Results of Tighter Control
The agreements entered between EU and Libya to tighten controls at borders and ports-of-entry had an e unintended consequence of on the Eritrean refugee who were trying to cross the sea to enter Europe and those who try to avoid Libya and find another route to other countries. The crimes perpetrated by security forces in Sudan, Libya, and Egypt have increased unprecedented. Abduction for extortion locally reaches an amount of $2000 – $5000. Refugees are also exposed to a forced trip north to be sold to renegade Egyptian Bedouins who torture the refugees mercilessly in order to get them to call relatives and obtain huge ransoms, typically in the $30,000 – $50,000 range per person. In the hands of the hijackers, Eritrean hostages quite often face torture usually involves burning with hot irons, electroshocks, dropping molten plastic on the skin from burning bags and bottles, exposure to the weather, sleep deprivation, continual rape of women, suspension upside down, and lack of food and water. Hostages are released if and when the ransom is paid. For those not paying, some are kept on as slaves, and some are killed and dumped in the desert. In most cases, after families have paid ransom, they get re-sold to other sets of traffickers, creating an almost interminable circle.
Moreover, there is a tendency by the host countries to categorically name all the refuges who are smuggled out to the country as economic migrants though it is know that Eritreans came from a repressive regime which doesn’t respect human rights. It was also indicated that those who managed to go to Israel from Egypt also face humiliating and inhumane conditions. The government considers them as “work infiltrators” instead of refugees. The victims/survivors are seen as economic migrants and not as people deserving of protection. As a consequence, and particularly under the Anti-Infiltration Law, they are considered undesirable. This conflates asylum processing and security, and undermines refugee protection and assistance.
As long as there is violation of human rights and repression, people will flee their countries to seek a better life and asylum seekers will be found among those who encounter danger on the high seas. Thus, the European Union member states must: first, respect their refugee and human rights laws and their obligation under the international law; second, revise the Dublin II Regulation in a way that shifts the burden on the peripheral countries to all EU members’ states to end the human catastrophe in the high seas and victimization of refugees on the hands of traffickers and smugglers.