By Pat Rubio Bertran
As we are confined in our homes during this unprecedented pandemic, people in flimsy dinghies continue risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea, seeking a place of safety. COVID-19 has erected yet another border in between them and the right to seek asylum, and it’s wider than the 2-meter recommended distance.
When the pandemic forced European countries to close borders to control the spread of the virus, Greece was already in its third week of being praised as the “shield of Europe” as it continued to illegally push back asylum seekers attempting to enter the EU from Turkey.
During that same time, in the Central Mediterranean, civil rescue boats with hundreds of survivors on board were unable to disembark in Sicily for over a week because of stand-offs with authorities, delaying the necessary 15-day health quarantine.
And that week, the International Organization of Migration (IOM) released the number of people dead and missing in the Mediterranean in 2019: 1,885 human lives. Put simply: Europe had closed borders for people seeking refuge well before COVID-19 appeared on the continent. This pandemic is shrinking the lifelines for migrants at sea to survive.
Human rights violations in the Mediterranean continue, but it is harder to keep authorities accountable. We often only hear about migrants at sea when it’s framed as a “threat” or an “invasion” to Europe. But since the world and Europe, announced to be “at war with a virus”, the daily tragedy in the Mediterranean seems to have fallen through the cracks.
For example, on March 21, a Greek Cypriot patrol vessel pushed back a boat carrying 175 people from Syria, justifying that the police acted on government orders to prohibit entry in order to protect against COVID-19. The police made it clear that they will not allow anyone, including asylum seekers, to enter in violation of these decrees. Just a few days earlier, 49 asylum seekers, including a pregnant woman and three children, in Malta’s Search and Rescue zone were also denied entry and the Armed Forces refused to disclose information on the matter.
The network of WatchTheMed AlarmPhone later reported that “the Maltese authorities instructed the so-called Libyan coastguards to enter a European Search And Rescue zone in order to abduct about 49 people and force them back to Libya […] where, according to their testimonies, they were imprisoned and battered.” At the same time, along the Eastern Mediterranean route, Greece voted and approved in Parliament to suspend the right to seek asylum from March 1-31st, with the possibility of extension.
These measures leave new arrivals in limbo, subject to unlawful detention, forced returns and with no assessment of vulnerabilities. At sea, Greece imposed bans on maritime traffic around some islands in the Aegean while the Hellenic Coast Guard is returning people back to Turkey by putting them in life rafts and dropping them at the Turkish side of the Aegean border.
While COVID-19 fuels policymakers to construct more borders against asylum seekers, the virus has also made it more difficult for many search and rescue organizations to offer lifesaving services. For most of March – during which, over 3,500 people reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean – there were no civil rescue ships in the wider Mediterranean.
Even before COVID-19 struck, search and rescue NGOs were already heavily targeted and criminalized by authorities, but this public health emergency has provided governments and right-wing movements with another “shield” to justify more violent and systematic deterrence measures. Given this trend, it was not unexpected when Italy used the pandemic to publicly justify the closing of the ports to refugees.
COVID-19 may have transformed the world in many ways, but upholding people’s fundamental rights to seek asylum must not be impeded. The European Commission explicitly states that travel bans related to the pandemic should not apply to persons in need of international protection, and we must remember that it also applies to our sea borders.
There are many ways to ensure safety if health risks are identified, in line with the COVID-19 response, from screening arrangements to quarantine in a place of safety, to testing. It is not an “us” or “them” dilemma. It is not a matter of ability, but of will.
European governments and policy-makers must choose saving lives while complying with health measures, instead of choosing illegally push back, or refuse to rescue, refugees at sea. We must not allow COVID-19 to become another border to safety and asylum for refugees.
Pat Rubio Bertran is the Program Lead for Refugee Rescue, the only professional and humanitarian Search and Rescue NGO operating 24/7 on the North Shore of Lesvos, Greece. As of March 19, Refugee Rescue has had to pause its operations in Lesvos due to COVID-19.