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IMMIGRATION

Spain’s model for saving lives at sea should be emulated in the EU

European states have the legal and moral obligation to resume search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Spain's Salvamento Maritimo should lead the way, writes Luna Vives, Assistant Professor of Geography and Migration at the Université de Montréal.

Spain's model for saving lives at sea should be emulated in the EU
In this June 2018 photo, a migrant rests at the port of Tarifa in southern Spain after being rescued by Spain’s Maritime Rescue Service in the Strait of Gibraltar. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 18,000 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe since 2014. Last year, the suspension of search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean caused the deaths of one in eight migrants along this route.

Refusal to aid migrant vessels in distress is not only causing the carnage. It is also a violation of a nation’s responsibilities under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, a cornerstone of international maritime law and a legal obligation the 174 member states of the International Maritime Organization have willingly assumed.

For these reasons, the UN Refugee Agency and the international community is urging European states to resume search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. It’s important that this responsibility be placed in government-run entities independent of the military. Spain’s approach to saving lives at sea through its publicly owned search-and-rescue agency, Salvamento Marítimo (SASEMAR), is a viable alternative to relying on the military or humanitarian organizations to do the job.According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 18,000 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe since 2014. Last year, the suspension of search-and-rescue operations in the central Mediterranean caused the deaths of one in eight migrants along this route.

Refusal to aid migrant vessels in distress is not only causing the carnage. It is also a violation of a nation’s responsibilities under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, a cornerstone of international maritime law and a legal obligation the 174 member states of the International Maritime Organization have willingly assumed.

The military should no longer control borders

Most southern European coast guards are under military command. These militaries are partisan and opaque entities that have shown little regard for migrants’ lives.

Military forces have regularly foregone their duty to assist migrant vessels. A leaked conversation between a Syrian refugee aboard a sinking boat and the Italian emergency services gave chilling testimony to this. The migrant boat sank shortly after the call, and all migrants aboard died.

In the Mediterranean, militarization has mainly meant developing capacity to detect migrants before they enter European search-and-rescue responsibility zones. The contracts with private firms to develop and implement technologically advanced border surveillance systems (for example, EUROSUR, the Sunny project, Albatross or Roborder) are disturbingly opaque. These projects cost billions of euros and are approved without public or parliamentary scrutiny. It’s unclear what these firms will do with the collected data.

These is also a push to transfer search-and-rescue responsibilities from states to the European Border and Coast Guard (also known as Frontex). This agency, military in its approach to border control, is currently before the EU Court of Justice on charges of lack of transparency that potentially include human rights abuses. And yet, just a few months ago, the European Parliament gave Frontex more money and an expanded mandate to seal the EU’s maritime borders against unwanted migrants.

NGOs: A stop-gap solution

Until 2017, European governments in the central and eastern Mediterranean welcomed NGO participation in rescue operations.

That year, NGOs were first accused of aiding human trafficking and forced to abide by a controversial code of conduct. Since then, European states have criminalized humanitarian rescue operations, denied operational and docking permits and closed off their ports.


In this December 2018 photo, a baby is loaded into the rescue vessel of the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms after being rescued in the central Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. (AP Photo/Olmo Calvo)

The Italian government (especially Matteo Salvini, minister of the interior) has been particularly aggressive, as the criminal prosecution of rescue crews helmed by Pia Klemp, Miguel Roldán, Carola Rackete and others demonstrate. NGOs currently operating in the central Mediterranean are doing so illegally.

NGOs have saved many lives at great cost. But it is not their role to fulfil the legal obligations of European states.

Public search and rescue service

Since 1992, Spain has fulfilled its search-and-rescue responsibilities without involving the military or NGOs. But that’s changing.

SASEMAR, Spain’s publicly owned company, is in charge of addressing all emergencies in Spain’s responsibility zone — an area 1.5 million square kilometres, three times the country’s land mass. SASEMAR is under the purview of Spain’s Ministry of Development.

Only 10 per cent of SASEMAR’s operations relate to migration. And yet, in 2018 alone, the company rescued almost 50,000 migrants. With a maritime rescue crew of 80 workers and equipment specifically designed for the task, a typical rescue led by SASEMAR takes between one to two minutes (NGO-run operations generally take 10 to 30 minutes).

But in a push for the militarization of the sea, Spain’s left-leaning government is quietly dismantling SASEMAR. Rescue crews are overwhelmed. Air radars, key for locating vessels, have been down for more than a year.

Pedro Sánchez’s government has transferred control of sea operations involving migrants to Spain’s Guardia Civil (a force under the Ministries of the Interior and Defense), the armed forces and Frontex. Under military command, the duration of an average rescue operation has gone up by 3.5 hours. More migrants are drowning.

When rescued migrants arrive at port, they are interviewed by two agents from the Guardia Civil, two police officers and two Frontex officers. Sometimes, six additional Frontex officers take pictures and notes about the operation.

Clearly, we are witnessing the transfer of search-and-rescue responsibilities to the military.

But if the EU and its member states really want to address their responsibilities, the military is not the answer. Neither are NGOs. Instead, they must carefully consider Spain’s previous approach — a professional, safe and cost-efficient way of saving lives at sea.The Conversation

Luna Vives, Assistant Professor of Geography and Migration, Université de Montréal

This article was first published in The Conversation. Read the original.

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POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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