Petra De Sutter

Fertiliteitsexperte, senator & parlementslid voor Groen in de Raad van Europa


States urged to save all lives at sea, insist on rights if migration control ‘outsourced’

In het parlement van de Raad van Europa verdedigde De Sutter op woensdag 27 juni 2018 een dringende resolutie, die de lidstaten eist om het internationaal recht op zee na te leven.

Artikel 1 va het mensenrechtenverdrag over menselijke waardigheid komt immers in het gedrang wanneer lidstaten voor politieke en populistische redenen vluchtelingen niet meer in veiligheid wensen te brengen.

De aanbevelingen van dit rapport gaan rechtstreeks naar de 47 ministers van Buitenlandse Zaken van de lidstaten van de Raad van Europa.

Een nieuwsbericht kan je lezen op de website van het parlement van de Raad van Europa, waar je ook het rapport en de stemming terugvindt. De Spaanse krant La Vanguardia schreef er ook een artikel over.

De tussenkomst kan je herbekijken vanaf minuut 21:40 via WEBTV of onderaan deze pagina nalezen.

Ms De SUTTER (Belgium) – On Monday the Bureau agreed to a request, tabled by the Socialist Group, for an urgent debate on the international obligations on Council of Europe member States to protect life at sea. The debate was requested under the urgent procedure because the problems set out in the report are of an urgent nature. I was appointed rapporteur for the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons.

      I wish to remind the Assembly of some facts and figures. The report is important because member States have been refusing entry to their ports to foreign vessels carrying passengers rescued at sea. Remember what happened to MS Aquarius, owned and operated by NGOs, which had been rescuing asylum seekers off the coast of Libya. MS Lifeline, which has also rescued asylum seekers off the coast of Libya, was also refused entry to Italian and Maltese ports. The Aquarius has since been accepted in Valencia in Spain. That in itself is not in compliance with international obligations to protect human life at sea. These obligations are both moral and legal, because member States have ratified that convention. We are happy that Spain has let the Aquarius enter on humanitarian grounds.

      We could ask, “What does that mean? Why did Italy and Malta refuse to accept those ships?” This is not about pointing the finger at these countries; it is an example of what will happen if European Union member States close their borders as a first step, if there is a lack of solidarity on the part of other European States. The burden on coastal member States will then increase and right-wing politicians will come to power. That is the result of what we see, so the problem is much more complex than just pointing the finger at each other.

      What are the real numbers? We often hear the argument that European countries are now at breaking point, having been saturated with arrivals, but the figures contradict that. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, stated as recently as 22 June that Europe today is no longer in the crux of a migration or refugee crisis, and that Mediterranean arrival numbers are now at pre-2014 levels and dropping towards their long-term historical averages. According to the International Organization for Migration, 41 000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean during the first six months of 2018, and 960 people died on the journey. Those arrival figures are 51% lower than last year’s, and 81% lower compared to 2016.

      However, ever if the absolute numbers are going down, the truth is that the closure of borders has put asylum seekers in even more life-threatening positions, because the journeys they now undertake are longer and the routes are more dangerous. I am afraid that this really is a vicious circle. The number of arrivals might have decreased significantly, but a higher proportion of those migrants are dying on the journeys. I want to share with you some arithmetic. In 2015 the number of deaths – people dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean – divided by the total number of crossings was 0.37%, or roughly one in 300. At 2.3%, the proportion dying in 2018 is six times higher. Those figures are from Marta Foresti, the director of the Overseas Development Institute, and were quoted in The Guardian only last Sunday. The reality of migration from Africa to Europe does, in absolute figures, seem more manageable, but at the same time the humanitarian aspect, with all these people dying, has become more urgent.

      What are member States’ obligations? On the eve of the June European Council on migration, security and defence, which starts tomorrow, it seems that the probability of reaching a European Union-wide consensus might be rather small. We hear many different proposals, and we have to question whether they could be implemented and whether they would comply with human rights. The closing of borders by member States has a direct effect, because “Fortress Europe” makes the routes for refugees more dangerous. The externalisation of the European Union migration policy that is on the table might seem like a good technical solution, but the question is whether it will worsen the humanitarian situation – we have seen what happens on the Greek islands and the hot spots.

      What we need are legal pathways from outside Europe, but not at any price. It is therefore of the utmost importance to remind European Union member States of their international obligations to protect life at sea when they are devising and implementing common action, as they plan to do tomorrow and the day after. That means they should ensure that Frontex operations can effectively assist in search and rescue operations, that they should ensure fair and regular resettlement programmes, and – this is really important – that we have to disconnect rescue operations from subsequent applications for asylum by those rescued at sea, because those are two different things and they imply distinct obligations.

      In conclusion, this urgent debate is about not only migration, but humanitarian issues. It is a human rights matter to guarantee safe entry to the closest port for any refugee at risk, and thus to protect life at sea. At any time our minimum standard should remain human rights, and that is a red line that no member State should cross. Harmonisation of maritime law is necessary, but that is not a reason for member States to ignore their international obligations – both legal and moral – to protect life at sea.

      As a doctor, I would like to compare what those ships in the Mediterranean are doing to what ambulances do. Ambulances are vehicles that are meant to pick up people in need, whatever the reason for them being there or for their suffering. An ambulance takes a person who is suffering to the closest hospital, and the refugee boats bring refugees to the closest port. An ambulance cannot leave a person behind because it does not agree with the reason why the victim is there or the circumstances, or because it is not clear who takes responsibility afterwards – those are two completely different matters that, as with emergency and urgent care, have to be dealt with separately. I hope that image stays in your mind during this debate.

      I also hope that the European Union ministers who sit around the table tomorrow take to heart our recommendations, which we attached to the report. To be sure, we recommended asking those ministers to develop guidelines for member States to protect human life at sea through search-and-rescue operations in accordance with obligations under the convention, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable – women and children – in the context of smuggling and trafficking. We also recommend a thematic debate on European policies on the protection of life at sea, on the right to enter a foreign port in distressed circumstances, and on the right to apply for refugee status. If we agree those recommendations, they can be on the table tomorrow when the European Union ministers do their job.

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Thema door Anders Norén