Aid organization Borderline Europe has been honored with the 2012 Aachen Peace Prize for its criticism of what it calls the EU's harsh border control policies that leave the union with blood on its hands.
Refugees coming to Europe seem to top the headlines only when major tragedies strike - but the drama persists even when the coverage doesn't. For many years, people from Africa have made dangerous trips in inadequate vessels in an effort to seek refuge on European shores. And for many years, European authorities have tried to stop them. Aid organization Borderline Europe has been trying to give refugees a voice since 2007.
Coast guards in Italy, Greece, Spain and France are supported logistically and with personnel by the EU border protection agency Frontex. Their mission verges on the absurd. On the one hand, boats with refugees are to be turned around - using force if necessary - but, on the other hand, no person's life is to be endangered in the process. In fact, the border guards must offer help when migrants face visible dangers, whether caused by sickness or water or fuel shortages on board - or simply when a boat is so full that it could sink.
Europe's "murderous side"
Human rights activist Elias Bierdel
The public often receives little information about how the coast guard is juggling its obligations to provide humanitarian aid but deter refugees from landing in Europe. Elias Bierdel, the founder and chair of Borderline Europe, points to UNO estimates suggesting that 1,800 migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2011 alone.
"Of course that's a major scandal when you think about the fact that the Mediterranean is a high security zone, where lots of ships with European officials are on the water. It's our assumption that every boat - even the small ones - can be seen," Bierdel said.
It goes beyond failing to assist a person in danger, Bierdel added, when people die as refugee boats are directed back and forth between coasts while officials quibble over national versus European responsibilities.
"You're moving into territory with cases like that where Europe is really showing a murderous side," he said.
Arrested for giving aid
Elias Bierdel has personal experience with Europe's contortions on border control. In 2004, the aid ship Cap Anamur rescued 37 African refugees from distress at sea and brought them to land in Sicily, although authorities had initially not approved the operation. At the time, Bierdel was the chair of the Cap Anamur organization. Along with the ship's captain and first officer, he was arrested and charged with people smuggling and being an accomplice to illegal immigration. In 2009, all three were acquitted.
Bierdel has observed the EU relying increasingly on legal tools when it comes to deterring refugees and their helpers.
Some Cap Anamur aid workers faced prison sentences
"And that's when you see aid measures grotesquely turned into something wicked or criminal, and that's not just the case with Cap Anamur in 2004," he said. Tunisian fishermen who offered help to a sinking refugee boat were also called in front of an Italian court. Borderline Europe and other human rights organizations supported those charged in the affair.
Time for a new strategy?
There are smugglers operating on the borders who look for ways to profit from the refugees or even put them in harm's way. And it's also true that offering aid to refugees can encourage more people to seek shelter or better living conditions on European shores. However, Bierdel says, a strategy that tacitly accepts the death of people in an attempt to scare others away is not morally acceptable:
He would prefer to see all refugee seekers brought to land before then deciding about offering asylum or sending them home. And European solidarity is especially important here, he stressed: "Shared outer borders can only mean that there is also shared responsibility for the people that arrive by way of them."
Bierdel's hopes Europe will ultimately embrace a much different strategy toward immigration. Many EU countries are facing demographic problems due to aging populations. Bierdel proposes bringing young people from around the world "under specific conditions" to Germany, for example, in order to train them.
"After their training, then we could make them an offer if we would like them to stay. But if they prefer to go home, then it's an enrichment for the world," he concluded.