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.

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.

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

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.