2023, another grim year for people seeking protection in Europe

2023, another grim year for people seeking protection in Europe

By Juan Matias Gil, MSF Search and Rescue Representative

Last year ended just as it started for people seeking safety in Europe: badly, terribly badly.

In the early days of 2023, the Italian government decided to implement a new obstructive legislation regarding search and rescue activities in the Mediterranean Sea. To make matters worse, by the end of the year, European institutions reached an agreement to overhaul the European asylum and migration system.

Both legislations were celebrated as breakthrough reforms to allow European States to better handle the migration challenge. In reality, they only converged in the common objective to keep non-Europeans as far as possible from European soil, perpetuating discriminatory and violent border practices.

The Italian legislation targets civil organisations operating search and rescue vessels; the same ones that are covering the deadly void left by European States in the central Mediterranean and despite the NGO vessels do not even make up 10 per cent of the sea arrivals to Italian shores.

This new legislation imposes a “single rescue” rule, meaning that NGO vessels, such as Geo Barents, the MSF’s search and rescue ship, need to head to a port immediately after a first rescue operation. Not only this forces us to ignore other open alerts and leave people in distress at sea to an unknown fate. This then gives the Libyan Coast Guard, a cherished partner of the Italian authorities, full freedom to perform illegal interceptions in international waters and push back migrants to Libya, in an organised cycle of horrific violence and abuse.

Who acclaimed the new Italian legislation? Those who believe human rights should be determined by people’s place of origin, skin colour and immigration status.

Who is paying the price of these discretional decisions? Those fleeing war, persecution, a lack of livelihood, and seeking international protection.

As per the new European migration pact, a political deal that took European States years to agree upon, is doing nothing other than legitimising and condoning the derogation of people’s fundamental rights, their safety and protection.

The pact will not address the largescale and systematic use of violence at Europe’s borders, where pushbacks go hand in hand with physical assaults, arbitrary detentions, verbal humiliation and other forms of degrading treatment. The pact will not strengthen the reception and asylum systems, nor will it put in place a genuine procedure of shared responsibility and solidarity among the Member States. ​

Who acclaimed the European migration pact? Those who believe closed ports, walls, barbed wires, camps and surveillance should steer migration management.

Who will pay the price of its implementation? Those fleeing war, persecution, a lack of livelihood and seeking international protection.

Meanwhile, European leaders are turning their backs on the human suffering washing up on their shores. At least 2,300 people lost their lives in the central Mediterranean in 2023. So many people cried out against the Cutro’s and Pylos’ shipwrecks, and deplored those avoidable deaths. Yet months on, nothing has been done to prevent such tragic losses to happen again.

On the contrary, instead of protecting lives at sea, the Cutro Decree, adopted by the Italian government, restricts further the right people have to apply for protection in the country. What an ironic name for such disgraceful legislation.

No more than a few weeks after the Pylos shipwreck, the European Commission signed a deal with Tunisia, committing to funding for border management, search and rescue, anti-smuggling and forced returns. The agreement totally ignores the violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia, the collective expulsions to Libya and Algeria, and the consequent deaths due thirst and extreme weather conditions. Another outrageous cynical reaction.

As we kick off 2024, we hope for brighter months to come, but what is in front of us instead offers a grim reality. In an ever-more hostile Europe, our calls for safe and legal pathways, state-led search and rescue mechanism at sea, and dignified reception conditions on European shores, have long-since become unheard desperate screams. Nevertheless, we will keep repeating them tirelessly.

It is high times for European leaders to remember that fundamental human rights are not negotiable based on people’s origin, culture, religion or skin colour. A radical shift in migration policies is the only solution to avoid death and violence piling up at European borders in the years to come. ​

Hannah Hoexter Senior Press Officer, MSF UK





About MSF UK

This is the press room for MSF UK - the UK office of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare. MSF offers assistance to people based on need, irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation.

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