Two unmanned "ghost" vessels carrying mostly Syrian refugees were intercepted and saved off the Italian coast within a week of each other. EU policies of "defending the fortress" are the cause, says Pro Asyl's Karl Kopp.
DW: Over 700 mostly Syrian refugees were saved on December 31 and nearly 400 migrants from Syria were rescued at sea from an old cargo vessel on January 2. How do you assess the current situation that refugees are coming to Europe on even larger boats now that are unmanned?
Karl Kopp: On the one hand, it means that the people-smuggling industry is adapting and creating ways to get around European defense strategies. Europe did not Europeanize Italy's sea rescue operation Mare Nostrum and instead reduced the sea rescue capacities in the Mediterranean, which is a disgrace because it means lives of the people on these boats are not being protected. And now there is this trend to use larger ghost ships.
Last year, despite Mare Nostrum, over 3,400 people died in the Mediterranean and they continue to die. And all the while, Europe is continuing to concentrate on defending itself against refugees and is not willing to open new ways for these Syrian refugees to come to Europe legally and safely.
Each EU member state must protect its own borders and conduct its own search and rescue operations. Is it fair that Italy is tasked with helping these hundreds of thousands of people alone? After all, the refugees are moving on to other countries after landing in Italy. Would it not make more sense for the EU to come up with a common approach to this?
Exactly. Current policies are wrong on many levels. There is no proactive refugee program. Considering the tragedies occurring at our doorstep, it would be thinkable that we come up with a common and proactive solution, a European solution, to help these people. But Europe is not willing to implement a common sea rescue service. The European Parliament and European member states have failed with this by letting Mare Nostrum expire and instead deploying a smaller version, a Mare Nostrum "lite" which focuses on defense: the Frontex operation called Triton. And we show no solidarity, what with the policy of making the arrival countries solely responsible for taking care of refugees. What we need is a common inner European refugee policy. Europe is completely failing with regard to this humanitarian crisis.
Why do you think the European Parliament didn't want to adopt Mare Nostrum?
Well there are member states in Europe - big ones, including Germany, whose interior ministers say, yes, it is good to save lives, but Mare Nostrum serves as a bridge to Europe and we don't want that. The European Parliament should have provided funding, even more than the 12 million euros that Italy has paid for it, in order to set up full coverage for the Mediterranean. They talk a lot, but the fact is that the European Parliament has done nothing. I would say that the EU member states are a club of fortress builders.
European politicians have a lot of warm words for refugees but in reality right now, they are simply waiting out the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Europe is trying to defend its borders against these refugees and leave them to become the burden of third parties. But we know the capacities for the refugees from Syria and Iraq, for example, are simply exhausted in the entire region. Neighboring countries are closing their borders, there are no more escape routes and now Europe is closing down too. What we need, however, is to show solidarity and come up with a solution.
Europe has allocated spots to 34,000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the war entering its fourth year. But according to UNHCR we currently need over 300,000 spots - probably even more. We need to protect these vulnerable people and receive them in a humane way so they don't have to sell their souls.
Especially now, where there is so much conflict that is displacing Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Eritreans and people in a number of countries in Africa as well …
Yes, and to put it diplomatically, we are having a dishonest debate. A hypocritical debate. People are getting upset about these new tactics deployed by the people smugglers. But on the other side is the fortress of Europe. The trafficking industry is thriving off of these European border defense policies. The traffickers are coming up with new, but also more dangerous routes to Europe. But people try to ignore the correlation between these two. If Europe were more proactive in the protection of asylum seekers, these people would not have to sell their souls; Syrian refugees would then no longer be beat back on Greek or Bulgarian-Turkish borders, against humanitarian law. But Europe continues to defend its fortress and fight the traffickers. But why do they earn so much money? Because the EU is giving them the chance. By closing its borders, Europe is partially responsible for the mass deaths going on, but also that the smuggling industry is growing ever larger and ever more profitable.
Would it make more sense for refugees to be able to apply for asylum before taking the dangerous journey across sea?
Yes it would. We are not advocates of externalized asylum procedures, but it is very clear that we have the means, we have instruments to prevent people from taking these dangerous journeys. We could help resettle these people on a large scale, we could receive them. We need to sit down and put the numbers on the table and declare willingness. But that hasn't happened yet.
In Germany, we have already had programs which allow migrants to come here legally after taking a test. We have the means to let people in in a non-bureaucratic manner within the framework of family reunion programs. We could temporarily lift visa restrictions so that the refugees can come here legally. It makes no sense to have Syrians with family in Bochum, for example, go to Lampedusa or Rome. They should be able to travel legally. That would be a humane starting point.
Instead, Europe is trying to just sit out this crisis, to ignore it and is using the typical instruments of resistance. It shows that Europe does not want to deal with the widespread death that is occurring just off its shoreline. Instead, it complains about the deaths, while shedding crocodile tears. All the while, all of the refugee camps on the other side are overcrowded. And the people there don't even know if they'll have enough to eat in February. That is the reality. We believe it would be the least bureaucratic and the most humane to actively receive these people.
Will these unmanned "ghost ships" create a special problem?
This is an arms race on both sides. Europe pulls up a virtual wall or fence, and the smugglers find new ways that are more expensive because there is then more demand for routes to Europe. The large boats are a new answer to the commercial refugee demand. Europe is partly responsible for the deaths of these people and for the humanitarian catastrophe in the Mediterranean.
Europe also shares responsibility for making sure human rights standards are upheld on its land borders. Migrants seeking help and looking for asylum are turned away there - against humanitarian law and sometimes violently. Syrian refugees are dying on the outer borders of the EU because they are freezing to death or starving to death because they are not allowed to enter European territory. That is the sad reality. And Frontex is part of this cruel defense strategy. Frontex is the materialization of the fortress of Europe.
Karl Kopp is the Europe resentative of German NGO Pro Asyl and a member of the executive of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).
The interview was conducted by Sarah Berning