Press Release

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Photo credit: Shutterstock. Nicolas Economou. 

London.UK. 2020 was a challenging and introspective year for many, largely characterised by the COVID-19 global coronavirus pandemic; not only a crisis of public health, but also a secondary crisis of social, economic and political security resulting from the emergency measures taken by local, national and regional authorities. Inevitably, irregular migratory journeys were heavily disrupted by the strict enforcement of border closures, exposing migrants and refugees to even more risk and isolation than the pre-COVID-19 era. In the maritime context, this meant further reduced access to search and rescue (SAR), by both State and civil society actors, followed by contentious quarantine measures, which in many cases, were tantamount to arbitrary detention and restriction of access to fundamental rights.

English Channel

According to UK Home Office figures reported by the BBC, more than 8,400 migrants reached the UK irregularly in 2020 after crossing the Channel on small boats from France’s Northern Coast. The French Maritime Prefecture for the Channel and the North Sea has recorded the detection of at least 9,551 migrants attempting this crossing over the same period, spanning 868 separate events. This is a sixfold increase in activity from the previous year, which authorities attribute to; the closure of makeshift camps, improved smuggling methods, multiple unsuccessful attempts, and the perceived risk of a Brexit-induced closure of alternative migration routes to the UK.

Despite the relatively short distance, the clandestine nature of the Channel crossings means that migrants and refugees are exposed to greater risks and often depart in darkness, in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats. The tragic consequence of these factors is acutely visible in the statistics collected by the Institute for Race Relations’ report ‘Deadly Crossings and the Militarisation of Britain’s Borders’, which cite nearly 300 Channel-related deaths in the migration context since 1999, of which 9 are known to have occurred in the past few months.

The continued destruction of camps, and documented harassment of migrants and refugees, in Northern France has rendered many people desperate and created a renewed ‘push-factor’ across the Channel for thousands of people. Many asylum-seekers are then met with substandard reception conditions in the UK, which Government officials claim are designed to act as a deterrent. While Human Rights at Sea recognises the additional reception pressure currently faced by the UK, engineered discomfort is a condemnable practice which penalises vulnerable people and undermines fundamental rights. Asylum-seekers should never be criminalised for seeking asylum, nor punished by proxy for the actions of smugglers, traffickers and facilitators.

Eastern Mediterranean

In the Eastern Mediterranean, or Aegean Sea, Human Rights at Sea is alarmed by the findings of investigations conducted between Der SpiegelLighthouse ReportsBellingcatNew York Times, and others, pointing to the systematic pushback of migrants by Greek and European authorities. At the beginning of 2020, the Turkish Coast Guard began to publish regular testimonies of migrants and refugees intercepted in Turkish waters, claiming they had been pushed back, along with photographs of migrants and refugees left adrift in life rafts, allegedly by Greek authorities. Nearly 100 of these reports can still be found as press releases on the Turkish Coast Guard website.

Despite analysis by the New York Times estimating that over 1,000 people had been pushed back to Turkish waters in this manner between March and August of last year, it wasn’t until November that Turkish media agency Eha Medya published the first definitive footage of this practice taking place at the hands of the Greek Coast Guard.  This practice has long been documented and denounced by civil society actors, only to be consistently dismissed by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis as “fake news” and “Turkish propaganda”. However, the more recent implication of FRONTEX, as the European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, has attracted deeper scrutiny by European Institutions and senior officials. This is particularly timely as FRONTEX prepares to deploy the EU’s first centralised, uniformed service.

As early as March, both the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights and United Nations Special rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants called on the Greek government to investigate these allegations and uphold refugees’ right to access asylum procedures in Greece, whilst also condemning the risk to migrants’ wellbeing posed by concealing pushbacks. This call was soon joined by the International Organization for Migration and UN Refugee Agency, until Greek Ministers, FRONTEX Executive Director, Fabrice Leggeri, and EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, were invited to testify before the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee in July. The principle subject of this hearing concerned a Danish Coast Guard asset on loan to FRONTEX Joint Operation Poseidon in Greece which refused an unlawful order by Greek authorities. It quickly became apparent that this was not an isolated incident, and further reports emerged of FRONTEX assets turning a blind eye in the vicinity of pushback incidents.

European Commission

An extraordinary meeting of the FRONTEX Management Board, was summoned in November by Commissioner Ylva Johansson to investigate, after which a specialist committee comprising Member States was appointed, in addition to parallel investigations by the European Union Anti-Fraud Office, and the European Union Ombudsman’s Office.

In September, the European Commission published the EU’s long-awaited draft Migration & Asylum Pact, with the objective of “striking a new balance between responsibility and solidarity”. The Pact included a detailed ‘Search and Rescue’ proposal to relieve frontline states in the event of a large number of disembarkations over a short period of time, through a twin strategy of rapid relocation across the EU and streamlined returns to countries of origin. The Pact was largely welcomed by Member States but drew a more critical reception from Human Rights organisations who decried the emphasis on deportations, framed as solidarity.

Central Mediterranean

Central Mediterranean migration remains high but manageable with 94,950 recorded arrivals in 2020, although this is a 20% reduction from 2019 and the steady downward trend from 2015 continues. Reported fatalities also continue to drop, but at a much slower rate, still accounting for more than one death in every hundred arrivals; potentially more when the likelihood of unknown boat capsizes is taken into account.

The Armed Forces of Malta, as the country’s designated maritime SAR authority and key actors in the Central Mediterranean, have been repeatedly accused by civil society organisations of refusing and delaying assistance to migrant boats, culminating in the alarming practice of hanging up or ignoring distress calls. This is a disturbing example of State negligence which not only falls foul of Malta’s international maritime legal obligations, but also presents a risk to all maritime traffic travelling through Malta’s vast Search & Rescue Region (SRR).   Unfortunately the anticipated partnership between the SAR NGOs Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and Sea-Eye proved unsuccessful, leaving the Ocean Viking of French NGO SOS Méditerranée as the only dedicated civil society rescue vessel not currently detained by port authorities or undergoing maintenance work.

It is unclear whether this reduction in Central Mediterranean migration flows can be attributed to increased border management efforts in Libya and Tunisia, or other factors, including COVID-19, but the emergence of new ‘old’ routes between Algeria and Sardinia, and West Africa to the Canary Islands have caught the Italian and Spanish authorities off-guard. Reception and SAR capacities have been quickly saturated due to the frequency of arrivals and lack of available resources on the islands as they contend with COVID-19; 10% of the Canary Islands’ entire arrivals for 2020 landed in one single weekend, leading calls for evacuation to the mainland where essential needs and rights could be met.

Human Rights at Sea will continue to monitor the situation of migrants and refugees at sea and advocate the need for safe and secure seas, for access to a safe port for disembarkation and for meaningful responsibility sharing between the EU, its Member-States and third countries in the region.

Author: Marc Tiley and Human Rights at Sea