African migrants stranded on a boat. Photo: Getty
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"Shameful consequences?": Europe contemplates Australian response to African migrants

Will the EU's contemplation of Australia's "solution" to the migration crisis, denying all those rescued at sea the right to settle, end in "shameful consequences"?

When European leaders meet today, they are contemplating a radical overall of the treatment of questions of refugees and migrants. A military approach, which envisages naval vessels halting the exodus from Africa, is being considered.

No longer will anyone – men, women or children – be able to set sail from Libya with any hope of finding sanctuary in Europe.

This was confirmed by the British Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, who told the Andrew Marr programme: “we have to break the link between rescuing people from the Mediterranean and settlement because they [the migrants and refugees] will keep coming if they think they will be settled.”

Fallon complained that smugglers are phoning the Italian coast guard in advance and informing that their human cargo is settling sail and where to find their vessel.

Until now, anyone rescued by naval vessels at sea has been transported to Italy or Greece and put ashore. Fallon and his European colleagues believe this must end.

The EU agenda for the meeting says consideration being given to:

  • relocation/resettlement
     
  • return/ readmission/reintegration
     
  • cooperation with countries of origin and transit policy

Human rights activists fear something much more dramatic is being considered.

There are real concerns that the distinction between economic migrants (who can be returned) from refugees (who must be given sanctuary under international law) will be maintained in terms of this new policy.

Médecins Sans Frontières has issued a statement warning of what it calls “the shameful consequences of EU member states ignoring their humanitarian duty”. MSF says that the European leaders have to “radically rethink their policies” so that they can offer “safe and legal ways for people to seek refuge and asylum in Europe”.

 

The Australian model

This new approach appears to mirror the Australian policy, which denies all those rescued at sea the right to settle in the country.

The Australians ensure that no one who attempts to arrive in the country without permission can remain. They are held in a series of offshore detention facilities on Nauru and Manus island.

If fully implemented this approach would mean establishing enclaves along the North African coast or detention centres in countries as diverse as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. There are suggestions of establishing a major holding centre in Italy.

The basis for the EU’s response was laid out in a 700-page plan, which has yet to be made public.

 

Refugees, not economic migrants

The recent media coverage of the situation in Calais, where thousands of Africans and Syrians are attempting to board lorries and cars to reach Britain, suggests that everyone is an economic migrant.

Amnesty International says this is simply incorrect.

Steven Symonds, Amnesty’s refugee expert, points to remarks by David Cameron earlier this month, when the Prime Minister accepted that this is not always the case. Cameron put down the flood of migrants to: “the combination of the failed states and criminal gangs in North Africa  driving desperate migrants across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching our shores”.

“This is right,” says Symonds. “These people are being pushed – they have been driven from their homes and are not trying to come to Europe to find a land of milk and honey.”

Amnesty would like to see Britain joining other EU nations in accepting its share of refugees. But this is unlikely to happen.

The latest indication from the EU summit is that as few as 5,000 people will be accepted as refugees. The rest will simply be repatriated. How the EU will return thousands to a state with a human rights record as notorious as Eritrea has yet to be spelled out.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”