“They are conscious of their impending death, still they would rather float out to sea. That makes one ponder the conditions of life for many in the world,” a woman rescuer on the Aquarius told me. The Aquarius is one of the rare vessels still rescuing people on the border of the territorial waters of Libya. The women, men, and children who embarked on flimsy dinghies after having been dispossessed by all the agents of this drama finally land in Europe. The reasons of the conditions that made them flee are not discussed; what is discussed is constraining the flow they form and managing those people. Although they experienced many levels of torture, they still must “convince the authorities” of their need for protection.
In 1951 in Geneva, the international community agreed on a convention on the protection of refugees. They decided that asylum should be granted to people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country. It was the time of post WWII international conventions, when the narrative was “never again.” The convention affirms that no one should be expelled against her or his will to a territory where she or he fears threats to life or freedom.
The main industrial countries have reinterpreted the convention they ratified. As Patrick Young, an attorney for the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), told us, in the United States this is the worst period for immigrants in his lifetime and he has been working in immigration for decades. He also told us that they had seen no refugees coming since the election.
The European governments have been designing policies to close their borders to refugees and migrants. In countries previously known to welcome migrants – such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Hungary – anti-immigrant parties have reached unprecedented levels of representation. As a result, those countries have aligned their immigration policies with the more conservative countries. In 2015, the Swedish population grew by an additional 1.6 %, thanks largely to the arrival of 163 000 refugees. As elsewhere, Sweden’s discourse of public debt and unemployment rates has included immigrants as an aggravating factor. This triggered horribly restrictive asylum policies, placing Sweden at the bottom of the 32 European countries. Meanwhile, the Schengen free circulation agreement in EU countries has fallen apart. Now the Swedish border patrol requires passport or photo IDs, even at the iconic Øresund Bridge border between Copenhagen and Malmö.
While asylum policies vary from country to country, they have all been tightened, especially in countries where these policies had been rather generous. Most recently, the newly elected French President announced that he wanted to reform France’s asylum process. He claimed this would provide a more human and just process and at the same time insisted on the importance of managing the problem of smugglers as well as discouraging people from trying to reach Europe.
While President Macron spoke fine words about humanizing French asylum policies, his Interior Minister was showing a “tough on immigration” face. France has not been very welcoming to asylum seekers and the application of its asylum policies does not respect the notion of protection that the Geneva Convention commands.
The Paris-based Primo Levi Center assists women, men, and children who have faced political violence, rape, torture, humiliation, persecution. They provide long term treatments to their patients. Typically, their patients are referred to them up to 3 years after having drifted onto the coast of Europe. Despite having been tortured, 50 % of their patients saw their asylum applications rejected in the first round. The Center published a report that identified the breaches in the process that should have provided protection. They made strong recommendations, among them a reform of Ofpra, the office in charge of first addressing asylum applications, demanding that the office be put under the aegis of the Ministry of Justice as opposed to the current Ministry of the Interior. They demanded justice instead of policing.
The report identified variances of results between the different judges in charge of reviewing the cases and granting asylum, showing that judges’ biases about migrants are a determining factor. In the current climate of “de-welcoming” refugees, refugees are often seen as liars who mislead the officers recording their testimony. This perception obscures the reality of torture that the asylum seeker has lived through. Torture excludes people. Once in Europe the torture continues as the refugees continued to be excluded. As one of the Primo Levi’s patients explained, “How do you make them believe that I was forced to eat parts of a fetus pulled out of the body of a woman who had been executed in front of me by a soldier.” Half of the refugees/migrants are women, who have been raped, abused during their trip, used as weapon of war and then face gender inequality when applying for asylum.
There is no time in these interviews to recognize the psychological trauma of the victims of torture. Now, the President’s reform will accelerate that process. If the improvement of protection rate observed in 2016 with an increase of 35 % compared to 2015 should continue, acceleration of the process shouldn’t mean officers are obsessed with identifying the good refugee from the fake refugee, essentially the economic refugee. Instead, they should give refugees the benefit of the doubt.
The paradigm must change, as determined defender of human rights Giusi Nicollini, Mayor of Lampedusa, declared when she received the Simone de Beauvoir Award, “The people who fled violence defied death, they are a modern example of heroism.” She identified the situation of migrants/refugees to be the new apartheid, a new holocaust. Giusi Nicollini lost her seat in the last election to someone who campaigned on tougher measures toward refugees. The role of conventions and their legality must be reinforced. We must switch the rationale from the balance of power to the balance of justice.
(Photo Credit: Yahoo / AFP / Carlo Hermann)