For years, migration has been a part of our daily lives. Nevertheless, this phenomena that happens in different areas across the world - from the Mediterranean basin to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh and the migrant caravan crossing Latin America to knock on America’s door - is still defined as an emergency.
The main feature of migration used to be the fear of being sent back that forced migrants to hide. Slowly though, an aggressive discourse developed around migration, and migrants started to be defined as “illegal”, whereas it would be more appropriate to talk about “irregular entry or presence” in a country.
Art. 31 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees explicitly foresees the possibility for someone to enter irregularly in a country to seek refuge and forbids the contracting states from imposing penalties, “provided they (refugees) present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence”.
Unfortunately, this principle is often disregarded, and migrants are victims of horrific abuse and violations during their journeys to reach safety.
At the end of summer 2018, the Balkan route became popular again. After being less frequently used for a while, the route was once again in use, but it maintained its old burden of violence against migrants, who were savagely beaten and exposed to degrading treatments at the Croatian border.
The situation was documented in detail, and according to testimonials some people were forced to walk barefoot in the snow.
If we don’t implement safe and legal routes, traffickers will continue to be the only chance for migrants and refugees to reach safety
Amnesty International recently released a report that accuses Europe of being complicit in this attitude towards migrants: “European governments are not just turning a blind eye to vicious assaults by the Croatian police, but also funding their activities. In so doing, they are fuelling a growing humanitarian crisis on the edge of the European Union.”
Amnesty International’s report reveals that migrants are victims of terrifying abuse, families are arbitrarily separated, children are constantly hungry, women have miscarried due to fear and human rights are neglected. And this is happening at Europe’s doorstep, not far from the European institutions and from our homes.
At the same time, the Rohingya - who MOAS has been assisting for more than a year - are still at the core of endless negotiations and debates that have not led to any effective solution. Bangladesh declared that hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each month to host more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees who are currently living there.
Their exodus from Myanmar has not stopped and continues in desperate conditions. In 2015, for instance, the so-called ghost boats crossed the Andaman Sea with their human cargo. These neglected and underreported sea crossings are similar to the ones along the route to or from Yemen, proving that you can’t stop people who are fleeing their homeland.
If we look across the world, the US is facing an unparalleled challenge with the migrant caravan at its southern border with Mexico. The caravan is unique, because it has not tried to hide its attempt to enter the US. Hundreds of thousands of people from Latin America met on their way to their dreamland and hoping to find refuge. Mothers, fathers, children, teenagers flee extreme poverty and violence, but are stopped by the blindness of politicians who don’t understand their suffering.
How long will it take for traffickers to organise dangerous sea crossings, if land routes fail? Is it so absurd to think that flimsy vessels packed with desperate people - like the ones along the Mediterranean - will depart to reach southern California? Maybe one day bodies will be washed ashore in San Diego, as has been happening on our shores and in Libya.
It has been demonstrated that security policies based on pushbacks and abuse are useless. Criminal networks can adjust to the needs of migrants and refugees more quickly than official governments can. Unfortunately, traffickers and smugglers react much faster than the politicians who prefer to turn a blind eye instead of safeguarding people’s rights.
This is why if we don’t implement safe and legal routes, traffickers will continue to be the only chance for migrants and refugees to reach safety.
In light of the increasing number of migratory routes that exist, with their horrific burden of suffering and abuse, why don’t we commit ourselves to building bridges and encouraging integration instead of wasting money to build walls? Why don’t we use the funds allocated to reject people, to decently welcome them? When will we understand that no wall is too high if you are running for a better life?
Regina Catrambone is co-founder and director of MOAS.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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