by Aya Chebbi - 30 July 2014
The dramatic political changes and instability in North Africa following the civil war in Libya and the partition of Sudan, in addition to the conflicts in Syria and Mali, have created new waves of movements in the region. The crisis has two main faces; the sub region serves as either a transit or final destination for sizeable mixed migration movements from neighboring countries, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
Despite the risk of arrest and detention, Libya continues to see the arrival of many refugees and asylum-seekers. According to UNHCR, over 37,000 asylum-seekers and refugees are registered with their Tripoli and Benghazi officers, with Syrians making up the largest group (18,655), followed by Eritreans (4,673), Somalis (2,380) and Iraqis (3,105). In Egypt, there has been an increasing number of asylum-seekers from Syria and Sudan. In addition to Sahrawi refugees in the Tindouf camps of Algeria, Algerian families along the border were hosting Malians who sought safety in Algeria in 2012. Early in the crisis, one effect of the Libyan civil war has been the migrant workers fleeing to Tunisia and Egypt. Morocco is also tripling in the number of asylum-seekers, with most coming from Côte d'Ivoire and Syria.
However, North African countries are experiencing huge gaps in existing mechanisms to grant temporary protection and asylum to persons in genuine need of protection. In Tunisia, for instance, the Palestinians of Syria are facing difficult socio-economic conditions because of a lack of tools to manage the type of migrants “trapped” in a third country. Many asylum-seekers live in precarious conditions, with lack of residence permits and little legal access to employment, having even further displaced by the current unrest in Libya.
Therefore, most of the countries receiving mixed migrants are already dealing with their own internal issues of political instability and terrorism, which doesn’t make them a safer place for the refugees.
The new waves of migration from other parts of Africa and the Middle East are seeking instead the “smuggling points” in Libya and Tunisia to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Spiraling numbers of both economic migrants and refugees are attempting perilous journeys across the Mediterranean, on unseaworthy vessels to Lampedusa, an Italian island used as an entrance to Europe. The high concentrations of overcrowded boat crossings brought the death toll from dangerous sea journeys to 1,500 people in 2011. Bodies from boat accidents are usually found in the waters off Italy, Turkey and Greece. While the conditions in North Africa continue to be desperate, large numbers of desperate migrants will attempt to make this trip. They are forced to resort to irregular ways of reaching a country where they are safe and where economical survival is possible.
The regime change and political circumstances leading to this situation in North Africa are turning into a long-term crisis. The continuing unrest in the region has had a negative impact on protection climate, with terrorist activity in the Sahel and Sinai regions, as well as Libya and Tunisia. The increased arrests and detention of refugees and asylum-seekers, especially those from sub-Saharan Africa, coupled with Europe’s fear of migration, dampened the broader political and public response to the historic revolutions in the Southern Mediterranean.
While governments of different countries continue to deport migrants, increase surveillance and sign security pacts, there is an urgent need for a humanitarian response as well as legitimate legal avenues for migrants who are fleeing from instability and unemployment in their countries. By concentrating on the expulsion of migrants through the use of security measures, their very rights, freedom and humanitarian assistance have been denied. By reinforcing exclusionist policies, the realities of death tragedies and political and socio-economical turmoil triggered by the uprising in North Africa are being ignored and silenced, indeed.
Europe, in particular, accepts far less refugees than those welcomed by much poorer countries. Some of the European media and politicians portrayed these safety seekers and migrants as a serious threat to Europe, creating panic on immigration. European governments tend to implement harsher border control and militarisation policies, which unexpectedly increases illegal immigration and the number of deaths in the Mediterranean and in detention. This can be best described as “death by policy” caused by displacements and the lack of legal modes of travel. On the one hand, hundreds of millions of Euros have been invested in external border controls, and thousands of people have died as a result of this strategy, on the other hand. However, European Union member states are compelled by international law - the Dublin Convention - to host asylum seekers seeking international protection and to examine and evaluate their applications. While some European countries do not sift economic immigrants from refugees arriving together, other states that respect this process makes the migrants’ lives miserable, under inhumane detention conditions for prolonged periods of time, life on the streets without state support - many being under constant threat of deportation- or death facing extreme hardships.
The fragmented response from Europe is lacking conviction and vision to protect migrants and rethink its policy. There is a need for a political will from Europe and the international community to effectively respond to the migration dilemma in North Africa. Mechanisms related to migration, mobility, detention and asylum should be readdressed by assuming responsibility for developing asylum procedures. This should be done in conformity with international standards and by assessing the migration governance gaps that the current crisis exposed. As we reflect on new solutions for a more just and humane immigration system, we shall ask:
Are migrants and asylum seekers, dying in one of the best-monitored and yet deadliest seas in the world, the problem? Or does the serious problem lie behind in the countries they flee or forward in the countries they seek?
An award winning Tunisian blogger and activist.
Read her personal blog Proudly Tunisian at http://aya-chebbi.blogspot.com