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Europe's refugees

July 21, 2012

Lampedusa's overcrowded refugee camps made headlines last year. Those facilities may have mostly emptied since, but Amnesty International says the EU's refugee policy still has major faults.

A boat with African refugees reaches Lampedusa in spring 2011
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In recent days, London-based human rights organization Amnesty International has worked to draw attention to the fate of North African refugees struggling to reach Europe by boat. Many of them arrive on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which belongs to Italy. Other refugees end up in Sicily or Malta. This summer has seen a decrease in the number of refugees from North Africa. But Nicolas Berger, Director of Amnesty International's European Institutions Office, told DW the fundamental problem has not changed.

DW: Mr. Berger, you just visited Lampedusa. What is the situation like there?

Nicolas Berger: The situation is currently calm. There are still refugees, but in numbers the island can cope with. Last year, the situation was difficult. We currently have 100 activists from 20 countries on Lampedusa monitoring how many people die every year.

Last year, about 1,500 people died. Still we want to draw attention not only to the deaths, but also to heroic deeds on Lampedusa. One night, 1,000 people arrived there. It is a small island with no source of water and 6,000 inhabitants. They behaved very heroically.

Where do people landing in Lampedusa originally come from? Are they from countries on the Mediterranean Sea, or more southern African countries like Senegal, Mali and Somalia?The majority are true refugees who come from countries like Eritrea and Sudan where life is almost impossible. The situation in Libya has not changed. There are rumors that some of the refugees were mercenaries who helped [deposed Libyan ruler Moammar] Gadhafi, but those are completely untrue. People are still being persecuted, imprisoned and tortured in Libya.

Nicolas Beger of Amnesty International
Berger wants the EU to implement a fairer policy for refugeesImage: Amnesty International

Their flight takes them across the Mediterranean. At the moment, though, people who need protection are not North Africans but people facing severe conditions in southern parts of Africa.

How do you judge the behavior of the Italian authorities since last year? How has Italy dealt with these refugees?

Unfortunately, very little has changed. Italy had an agreement with Libya when Gadhafi was still in power. People picked up at sea were simply returned to Libya in so-called "push-backs." The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has strongly condemned the policy as a massive human rights violation.

You have to imagine: these people went directly back to being tortured in Libyan prisons. Italy wants to reinstitute the program. There has been a new, secret agreement made known by the Italian press. Just two days ago, an Italian minister was in Libya to discuss how to proceed in the future. Thus, nothing has changed. And there is very little understanding on the part of the Italian government.

In recent years, Italy has tried working with European border protection agency Frontex on intercepting boats of refugees. Has the practice continued this summer, or has it abated?As before, there is a relatively high death rate at sea, which we find very regrettable. Just last week, 54 people died on a ship. Way too few sea rescues are attempted, while too much emphasis is placed on border controls.

A sculpture called 'Lampedusa - Europe's gate,' by Mimmo Paladino in Lampedusa, Italy
A Lampedusa monument to migrants who died en routeImage: picture alliance/abaca

The refugees are not just in Italy, but also Malta, Cyprus and Greece. And refugees' main path is not through the sea, but land routes through Turkey and Greece. Do you have information on these refugees? A growing number of reports indicate Greece is not doing enough about the situation.

Greecehas always had sub-standard procedures and conditions. Violence against immigrants, including police brutality, has greatly increased. Right-wing groups have chased immigrants into the streets with the intent of killing them.

The Greek situation has seen small improvements, in the sense that the government has tried to change asylum procedures. But the situation is still below any European standard.

Pressure at the border between Turkey and Greece has eased up a bit. The area previously saw 1,000 refugees per week. Now the figure is in the hundreds. But we are of course very concerned that bankrupt Greece is spending 13 million euros ($15.8 million) to build a fence along its border. As a result, refugees are likely to drown trying to cross river boundaries.

The refugee problem is most affecting the same countries that are suffering the worst from the eurozone debt crisis. Do you think other European countries should take care not to leave southern Europe alone?Of course, but there are always two sides to the equation. Naturally, every EU member state has to have humane asylum systems. This should be a given, but it isn't for every country. The situation is particularly bad in Cyprus and Malta. These states could do much more.

Illegal immigrants are seen in a detention center in Kyprinos, in the region of Evros, at the Greek-Turkish borders
Greece is working to stem the tide of refugeesImage: picture alliance / dpa

On the other hand, it is understandably difficult for Malta to host thousands of refugees. It's just a small country. Here, solidarity from other EU member nations should be applied. You see, Germany is taking just five percent of the refugees it did in the 1990s, before new asylum rules came into force.

Still, solidarity is not only important within the EU. It is important to note that four-fifths of the world's refugees head for the poorest countries. Europe is not even taking a small portion of what would be its fair share of all the global refugees.

Author: Bernd Riegert / srs
Editor: Greg Wiser