EU immigration policy is contributing to Sahara migrant deaths

Between 1998 and 2012, more than 16,000 people are known to have died attempting to migrate to the European Union.

An Israeli soldier stands guard near a Sudanese refugee who was trying to illegally cross the border with Egypt into southern Israel. Photo:Getty.

The BBC has published the moving account of a 14-year-old girl from Niger who lost her mother and sisters while travelling through the desert to Algeria in search of a better life. Her family were among at least 87 migrants who died on their journey through the Sahara after their drivers abandoned them without food or water.

Earlier this month there were two separate reported incidents of boats sinking in the Mediterranean Sea, killing over 300 people who had been hoping to travel to Europe. A report released earlier this year by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, found that between 1998 and 2012, more than 16,000 people are known to have died attempting to migrate to the European Union. Who knows how many bodies have never been found.

But despite this, European governments seem more concerned with keeping African migrants off their soil than trying to prevent their deaths, which often go unnoticed and unreported, in the seas between North Africa and Europe, in the Sahara desert, or in brutal detention centres across North Africa.

According to Crépeau’s report, the EU’s policies fail to adequately protect the lives of migrants attempting the sea crossing to Europe. The EU’s joint project to protect manage the region’s borders has seen its budget steadily mount, from €19.2 million in 2006, to nearly €42 million in 2007, topping €87 million by 2010. But EU migration projects primarily view migration as a security, rather than a human rights, issue. Although new legislation specifies that EU patrol boats in the Mediterranean should “give priority” to the special needs of persons in distress at sea, including migrants, Crépeau writes that he “regrets that the proposal does not, however, lay down any procedures, guidelines, or systems for ensuring that rescue at sea is implemented effectively as a paramount objective.” In other words, the EU isn’t taking enough practical steps to ensure that saving lives is a priority. Crépeau also reports that the criminalisation of migration means that private vehicles are reluctant to rescue migrants drowning at sea, as they fear personal repercussions.

On top of this, the EU is “externalising border control” by encouraging, funding and promoting the detention of migrants in North Africa and other non-EU  countries  to ensure that migrants are prevented from entering EU territory. However, in countries like Libya, where the EU has recently launched a new project to strengthen national border controls, migrants are often detained in holding centres where they are tortured or subject to other inhumane and degrading treatment. According to this Amnesty report, at least 5000 migrants are currently being held in inadequate Libyan government-run “holding centres” with many more being held by militia groups. But because from EU policymakers’ perspectives keeping migrants detained in North Africa is more convenient than processing immigration cases on home soil, they are not putting sufficient pressure on countries like Libya to reform their treatment of migrants.

The emphasis on criminalising migration, rather than recognising the human rights of all migrants and the special rights of asylum seekers and refugees, also drives migration further underground, reinforcing smuggling rings and making migrants more vulnerable to exploitation, and ultimately death. Trafficking or smuggling migrants is a criminal offence, but irregular migration itself is not.

The 14-year-old girl who buried her mother and sisters in the desert this week wasn’t just failed by the drivers who abandoned her to the Sahara. She was failed by the international community too.