Europe’s Migration Apartheid Is Killing Asylum Seekers
The EU rails against people smugglers, but its draconian policies keep them in business.
In Europe, we take photos of migrants before they die.
In Europe, we take photos of migrants before they die.
On June 13, aircraft from both the European border agency Frontex and the Greek coast guard equipped with cameras flew around a dangerously overcrowded fishing vessel around 50 miles off the coast of Pylos, a town on Greece’s southern Peloponnese peninsula. On June 14, by the time the ghostly images had circulated online, most people in the photos had perished after the boat capsized. But even before we knew who they were, and who had survived, Greek authorities very quickly made it known that the people on the boat had “refused assistance,” as their goal was apparently to continue sailing to Italy.
The absence of an effective rescue effort for the vessel raises a number of disturbing questions. Who exactly among the reported 750 passengers refused assistance on this boat? Was a referendum conducted? Was it the smuggling crew violently managing its cargo? And if so, why are the coastguard taking their orders from the crew rather than beginning a coordinated rescue operation as multiple international maritime conventions require? In recent days, media coverage of this mass drowning has been eclipsed by the sad case of five explorers trapped on the Titan submersible, and the huge resources being rallied to rescue them—a striking contrast in itself.
A boat laden with enough people to obscure the deck is manifestly an imminent catastrophe. A BBC investigation showed that, contrary to Greek officials’ claims that the boat was keeping a steady course, it was barely moving at all. A panicked distress call was made by passengers to the activist network Alarm Phone, which immediately forwarded it to Frontex, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Greek authorities.
Several days after the shipwreck, survivors are still locked up at one of the remote migrant prisons renamed in EU newspeak as a “close controlled access center.” Observers and journalists have been aggressively chased away by security after attempting to speak to people outside. Imagine for one moment if this had been a cruise ship of European tourists that had capsized. Among other things, a tearful reunion between brothers would not have occurred across metal barricades. The passengers certainly wouldn’t have been subject to insinuations that they were somehow to blame for their own deaths before they had even been identified.
The agency that inquired whether the stricken boat needed assistance was the Greek coast guard. This is the same organization caught on video last month by the New York Times abducting pregnant women and infants from an Aegean island and pushing them back out to sea. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his officials regularly appear on international media to deny this practice occurs, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. The whole point of the cruelty is to deter future migrants. But the latest addition to the ever-expanding Mediterranean graveyard is more evidence that it does no such thing. Stripped of its discredited rationale, all that remains is banal violence.
Rounded up by masked men, handcuffed, beaten, robbed, cursed at, and stuffed back into the water you crossed in hope of a better life: This is apparently “firm but fair” migration policy. I have heard numerous testimonies from migrants about pushbacks across Europe, and one common feature is that mobile phones are stolen by border guards, ensuring no evidence of the crime can be captured before being secretly expelled from the territory. Remarkably conveniently, during the Pylos shipwreck the coast guard’s onboard cameras were not recording, it claims. Unfortunately for the coast guard, the survivors are now on dry land in Greece and under the glare of a media spotlight. Some have told journalists that their ship capsized after the coast guard attached a rope to it.
Issuing contradictory statements, blaming the victims, and silencing witnesses: These are the actions of people frantically engaged in a coverup. But for those who monitor the Greek government’s misconduct towards migrants, this is nothing new; journalists are wiretapped and activists prosecuted under trumped-up charges (for the second year running Greece is the lowest-ranking EU member for press freedom). But now hundreds of people, of several nationalities, are dead in European waters. A so-called independent investigation in Greece is unlikely to be sufficient for an incident of this magnitude.
Greece faces a tougher situation than other European countries. The Greek authorities have long endured a frontline experience of the global migration phenomenon, unlike most of their European counterparts. For decades the Hellenic Coast Guard has saved countless lives at sea, including from the Pylos shipwreck, and it should be commended for those valiant efforts. But it must also accept its role in despicable acts of violence that have been repeatedly reported by credible outlets.
In January 2014, a migrant boat was apprehended by a Greek coast guard patrol that attached a rope and began to tow it away at speed; the boat capsized. Eleven passengers, including eight Afghan children, drowned in front of their family members. The survivors were taken to a basketball court, ordered to strip and bend over, then searched. After an attempted coverup and botched investigation, Greece was ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to pay around $362,000 in damages to the victims.
But it is impossible to discuss the crimes of the Greek authorities without highlighting the blank check they are given by the EU to commit them. Last year, in response to another deluge of border violence claims, Greece’s National Transparency Authority published a report that found nothing untoward. Brussels continues to call for Athens to set up an independent monitoring authority, but there appears to be no real downside to noncompliance. Authorities in Croatia, long accused of gruesome treatment towards migrants, never delivered on similar independent monitoring commitments and were still rewarded with Schengen area membership this year.
EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson said the sinking was a tragedy: “[The smugglers] are not sending them to Europe; they are sending them to death.” But the smugglers are not alone in this. Of course, they are unequivocally to blame for their murderous and exploitative acts and must be hunted down and prosecuted—preferably the kingpins and not only the henchmen. But smugglers are not a supernatural force; they are a market-driven phenomenon, and they emerge when the most affluent pull up the drawbridge in the faces of the most desperate. Unfortunately, the EU seems intent on fueling more demand for smugglers’ services.
Mere days before the Pylos shipwreck, EU leaders were crowing about a long-awaited and “historic” agreement on bitterly contested asylum policy. In essence, it will usher in yet more border militarization, detention centers, substandard asylum procedures, deportations, and outsourcing of responsibility. Far from an attempt to manage the movement of people in a dignified and orderly fashion overseen by state agencies, it is a recipe to enrich smuggling networks and guarantee endless confrontational scenes on the border by securitizing a humanitarian issue.
It has been reported that some of the passengers were from Kobani, a Syrian town just half a mile from Turkey; but the EU-funded violent clampdown on that border would have forced them to take an incredibly circuitous, and ultimately deadly, passage through the Mediterranean Sea instead. Kobani is also the hometown of Alan Kurdi, the toddler who drowned trying to reach Greece in 2015 and whose lifeless body became a potent symbol of the refugee crisis. Little has changed since.
Some of those on the boat had relatives already resident in Europe, but patchy and punitive eligibility criteria for family reunification pathways ensure that, realistically, migrants are faced with the options of permanent separation or deadly clandestine journeys. According to a report by the International Rescue Committee in 2022, the EU resettled fewer than 17,000 refugees (including just 271 from Afghanistan), with many states taking none at all only to be outraged when people showed up unannounced. In the same year 160,000 asylum seekers crossed the Mediterranean.
The celebrated new asylum rules allow member states unwilling to welcome an asylum seeker to instead pay into a fund that could be used to pay off non-EU countries to act as a warehouse for humans. Apparently, the EU sees no irony in bribing dictatorial failing states to stop people fleeing dictatorships and failed states.
Giving nearly $110 million to Tunisian autocrat Kais Saied for border management and other anti-smuggling operations is just the most recent example of this morally disgraceful and practically ineffective policy. Previous Faustian pacts with Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey are some others. Based on this grim trajectory, it wouldn’t be surprising if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Taliban are the next EU interlocutors on border management.
In May, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni received Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the warlord controlling swathes of eastern Libya, to discuss smuggling and illegal immigration. Some European politicians have started to question the number of flights landing in the east Libyan city of Benghazi operated by a Syrian airline previously sanctioned by the EU for human smuggling. Eastern Libya, specifically the port of Tobruk, was also where the ill-fated Pylos boat departed; and based on the thousands of dollars each passenger reportedly paid for the trip, it is likely to have netted the smugglers profits into the millions. Libya watchers may wonder if such an audacious and lucrative scheme could be carried out under Haftar’s nose without his knowledge.
Europe has invested heavily to ensure migrants do not leave Libya. The interception of overcrowded boats is subcontracted to a glorified militia that bureaucrats ridiculously refer to as a coast guard. European aerial assets, including Frontex, roam the Mediterranean Sea looking for migrant boats and then call the Libyans to drag the migrants back to dungeons where the most unspeakable horrors occur. Witnesses on board these vessels have previously told me of people jumping into the sea rather than face being taken back. Some of these seaborne gangs have actually been implicated in people smuggling. It is one of Europe’s most heinous moral compromises.
It’s too easy to simply call the shipwreck off Pylos a tragedy; it was the foreseeable consequence of numerous bad decisions and misplaced priorities. Frontex is the EU’s best-funded agency (last year it enjoyed a budget of around $823 million) and operates drones over the Mediterranean, and yet it took a group of phone line volunteers to better understand the distress of the people on board the perilously overcrowded vessel.
Greece uses life rafts to push migrants back to Turkey but apparently cannot summon enough of them to save drowning people. The EU sends personnel to assist Greece with rescue operations but has no unified search and rescue policy of its own; meanwhile, non-governmental organizations that try to save lives are constantly criminalized.
Last year, faced with another refugee crisis, Europe did the right thing. The never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive rapidly granted almost 4 million refugees from Ukraine legal status, access to employment, schooling for children, and freedom of movement around the continent.
Amazingly, the sky did not fall, and people were able to start rebuilding their lives. Policymakers could extend this model to other exiles from around the world showing up on Europe’s doorstep hoping for dignified treatment. Instead, they talk of equality while creating migratory apartheid, rail against smugglers while providing them with new clients, and preach democracy while paying off dictators.
Andrew Connelly is a journalist covering migration, politics, and human rights. Twitter: @connellyandrew
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