Guest Post: The effect of negative labelling – Why are we still talking about ‘migrants’?

By Dr Melissa Phillips

As the number of people arriving by boat to Europe continues to rise, so does the rhetoric about an influx of ‘illegal migrants’, ‘boat migrants’ , ‘migrant boats’ and just plain ‘illegals’. Academics have long written about the impact of press reporting on asylum issues and the effect of labelling on refugees and asylum seekers.(1) Their findings show the way predominantly negative labels are repeated and entrenched having a detrimental consequence for how we understand asylum issues and perceive asylum seekers. Perhaps the most pernicious of these labels has been ‘illegal’ which human rights groups, refugee advocates and media organisations have been campaigning against as inaccurate and legally incorrect.(2)

More recently commentators have been at pains to distinguish between groups of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe by boat, noting that there are technical legal arguments to guide terminology as well as familiar tropes that we encounter through the use of one term or another. As Jesper Bjarnesen notes, refugees and labour migrants are intertwined.(3) This is why terms such as ‘mixed migration’ have become one way to bridge the sometimes blurry distinction between people who leave their homes due to political persecution and those who suffer economic hardship, acknowledging that the two can be related in situations of displacement and refugee outflows.

Yet mixed migration still ties us to the word ‘migration’ which brings along with it polarising attitudes towards migration and competition over jobs. It also evokes less sympathy than refugee or asylum seeker, with migrants having fewer advocacy bodies and organisations fighting for their interests as compared to refugees.

So what do the arrival figures along the Central Mediterranean route into Europe tell us? Frontex’s FRAN quarterly for Q4, 2013 explained that “the majority of African irregular migrants detected along the Central Mediterranean route were Eritreans”. The classification of Eritreans as ‘irregular migrants’ would seem inaccurate given that around 90% of Eritrean asylum seekers successfully claimed asylum in industrialised countries in recent years.(4) Eritrea is currently the subject of a United Nations Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry and is known to be one of the poorest and most repressive countries in the world. The next largest group of arrivals originated from Syria and Frontex acknowledges that this group of people is escaping armed conflict in their country. However the Frontex report then goes on to refer to ‘migrant interviews’, once again conflating the terms migrant and refugee and using them interchangeably.

Beyond technical distinctions over terms and language there is a lack of personalisation of the human side of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe by sea. It can be very difficult to find individual stories behind the frenzied media headlines claiming thousands more people are potentially on their way to Europe by boat mainly departing from Libya. It is only through individual stories and nuanced accounts of why people leave their homes and their mixed motivations for departing, that we will better understand the factors driving mobility along this route which in turn can shape policy solutions. The upcoming United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2014 Protection Dialogue focuses on Protection at Sea and calls for responses that are sensitive to the specific needs of individuals and groups.(5) Assuming that all people have the same reason for leaving their homes and getting onto boats, that all people rescued at sea are migrants and that there is a one size fits all policy response misrecognises the heterogeneity of this group. Such heterogeneity includes country of origin, gender, age and family make up including pre-existing links to Europe.

It is time we stopped talking solely about migrants and start to use more technically accurate and relevant labels. Until then we cannot readily respond to a phenomenon that is one of the most pressing and challenging of our times – assisting people in need of protection at sea.

Dr Melissa Phillips is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

(1) See for example, Pickering, S. (2000). “The hard press of asylum.” Forced Migration Review 8: 32-33 and Zetter, R. (1991). “Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity.” Journal of Refugee Studies 4(1): 39-62.
(2) For more on this see recent commentary by Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/24/dispatches-why-we-should-outlaw-illegal and Fact Sheets produced by the Refugee Council of Australia: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/f/myth-long.php as well as media outlets: http://www.sbs.com.au/goback/about/factsheets/4/are-asylum-seekers-who-arrive-by-boat-illegal-immigrants and http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-24/tony-abbott-incorrect-on-asylum-seekers-breaking-australian-law/5214802
(3) Bjarnesen, Jesper (2014) ‘Refugees or migrants?’, Nordic Africa Institute, http://www.nai.uu.se/news/articles/2014/06/27/104657 .
(4) Figure cited in Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (2014), ‘Going West: contemporary mixed migration trends from the Horn of Africa to Libya & Europe.’
(5) See http://www.unhcr.org/pages/5357caed6.html .

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Conference: “Using Human Security as a legal framework to analyse the Common European Asylum System”, CLEER, T.M.C. Asser Instituut, The Hague, 4 July

The Centre for the Law of EU External Relations (CLEER) will hold conduct the following conference on 4 July in the Hague: ‘Using Human Security as a legal framework to analyse the Common European Asylum System.’ The event is free of charge, however registration is required. Please register here.

From the conference web page:  “The conference is the second event of CLEER’s project ‘Human Security: a new framework for enhanced human rights in the EU’s foreign security and migration policies’, implemented with the support of the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP) of the European Union.

The project runs from 1 September 2013 until 31 August 2014 and aims at facilitating academic interaction in closely interrelated areas of EU external conduct, creating synergies between and raising awareness of global security concerns. The project will, specifically, integrate elements of EU external action in security, development and migration policies, through the paradigm of human security.

This expert conference will explore new territory in its analysis of protection under the Common European Asylum System through the prism of Human Security. In the second and final part of the CLEER Jean Monnet conferences on Human Security, this high level gathering will bring together specialists and practitioners in the area of EU asylum law. It will take stock of recent developments in legislation, jurisprudence and doctrine; proposing insightful approaches to contemporary asylum challenges.

The four thematic panels of the conference will analyse the added value of using Human Security as a legal framework for protection in Asylum law whilst assessing the prospects of legal interaction between both fields. Sessions will concentrate on the concept of Human Security as a legal tool for interpretation of EU instruments. Emphasis will be placed on the Dublin Regime along with obligations that Member States must adhere to in applying substantive protection rights for those seeking asylum. Attention will also be paid to the use of Human Security as an operational tool for border management and the consistent application of EU norms. The conference will end with a contextualisation of the debate, specifically focusing on the relations between the EU and South Mediterranean States.

The conference will be of direct interest to everyone working and studying in the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice of the EU, notably the asylum and refugee fields. In this regard practitioners, lawyers, judges, scholars, academics, students, civil servants, military and civilian authorities are all encouraged to come. Each panel will be followed by a question and answer session allowing for the audience to participate in the debate, thereby contributing to a unique perspective on EU asylum law and its protection regime.”

 

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Panel Discussion: “Heading to Europe: Safe Haven or Graveyard?,” Radboud University Nijmegen, 16 May

From the organizers:

The Interest Group on Migration and Refugee Law of the European Society of International Law, the Centre for Migration Law of the Radboud University Nijmegen and the Amsterdam Center for International Law of the University of Amsterdam are pleased to announce ‘Heading to Europe: Safe Haven or Graveyard?’, a panel discussion on migration by sea in the Mediterranean. The panel discussion will be held on 16 May 2014 at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

The year of 2013 has demonstrated that the tragedy of thousands of migrants and refugees drowning on the shores of Europe is now a common occurrence. The fate of those who perished near the Italian island of Lampedusa has brought the urgency of the situation into focus. The aim of the panel discussion is to provide an overview of the legal rules and processes applicable to migration by sea in the Mediterranean and to reflect on their wider sociological implications.

The panel discussion consists of two panels, each followed by a plenary discussion. In the first panel, legal experts working in the field of academia and at stakeholder organizations (e.g. UN Refugee Agency, Council of Europe, European Union) focus on legal aspects of boat migration in the Mediterranean. The second panel brings together scholars and practitioners with first-hand experience from transit countries to discuss the sociological effects of the legal rules and processes. Click here for the complete program, and here for more information on the panelists.

The organizing partners cordially invite interested scholars, governments officials, practitioners and advanced students to join in the panel discussion ‘Heading to Europe: Safe Haven or Graveyard?’. Active participation in the discussion is strongly encouraged. Participation is free of charge. For participation, please register at the bottom of this page. For inquiries, please contact Lisa-Marie Komp at lisa-marie.komp@law-school.de.

Location is the CPO-zaal, Spinozagebouw at the Radboud University in Nijmegen (Montessorilaan 3).

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

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“Mediterranean flows into Europe: Migration and the EU’s foreign policy” – Analysis by European Parliament DG for External Policies

The EP’s Directorate-General for External Policies just released an Analysis, “Mediterranean flows into Europe: Migration and the EU’s foreign policy,” in which it reviews the EU’s external policies and instruments relating to migration in the Mediterranean, including the Mediterranean Task Force established after 3 October 2013 tragedy at Lampedusa in which over 350 people died.

The Analysis describes the serious shortcomings of the security-driven approach that has been taken by the EU. Noting, for example, that “it is unclear whether the militarisation of EU border management (resulting from a tighter relation between the CSDP and Frontex) will actually save lives or create even more danger for migrants” and that “[t]he increasing militarisation of the issue of irregular migration was underscored in December 2013, when the European Council called for the establishment of an EU Maritime Security Strategy by June 2014 as well as for increased synergies between the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and freedom/security/justice actors to tackle illegal migration.”

The Analysis discusses possible ways in which the European Parliament might play a more significant role in the shaping of future policies:

“The coming months – which will include the European elections and the June 2014 Council – present an important opportunity for the EP to engage politically with the topic of migration in the Mediterranean. As outlined above, numerous EU external policies and instruments deal with migration in the region; […]

All should incorporate respect for human rights as a central concern and pursue the overall goals of prevention, protection and solidarity. The EP has tools at hand to contribute effectively to those objectives. The EP should use its co-decision powers to ensure the inclusion of human rights provisions in all migration-related legislation, and its power of consent to guarantee that international agreements contain effective human rights guarantees. The EP’s budgetary powers also allow the institution to link assistance to third countries to proper human rights monitoring mechanisms.

Most pressingly, the EP should advocate the implementation of the actions recommended by the Mediterranean Task Force set up by the Commission. The EP should also use the opportunities generated by inter-parliamentary relations (such as the 27th ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly in March and the EU-Africa summit in April) to engage in a dialogue about migration with third countries. This dialogue should foster cooperation in the management of regular migration and in the fight against irregular migration and trafficking networks, with special emphasis on the need to prevent migrants from embarking on dangerous journeys to the EU.

The dialogue should also seek to frame Mediterranean migration within a wider perspective, possibly in the following ways:

  • Steer away from excessively militarised and security-centred approaches. The EP should ensure that strict human rights standards are respected in the fight against organised crime and smugglers’ networks, and that a clear distinction is drawn between criminal networks and their victims. The EU should prevent the criminalisation of migrants and of humanitarian organisations supporting migrants.
  • Highlight the importance of good governance, and of good migration governance more specifically. By reinforcing the EU’s Regional Development and Protection Programmes, for example, the Union can develop a comprehensive and long-term framework to develop and enhance the capacities of migration management and national asylum systems in Mediterranean countries.
  • Demand full respect for humanitarian law, refugee protection and human rights (including the rights of non-nationals) in crisis situations, and stress that humanitarian access must be guaranteed to provide life-saving supplies.
  • Recognise the importance and challenges that South-South and intra-African migration represent for countries in the southern Mediterranean, rather than focussing solely on the (much smaller) flows towards the EU.
  • Encourage further research on the migration-development nexus and explore the positive impact of human mobility on socioeconomic development.
  • Encourage EU Member States to facilitate and speed up their procedures to grant asylum and EU protected status, whilst better differentiating between refugees and irregular migrants. The EP should respect the competence of the Member States in this regard, but could also encourage Member States – in cooperation with the UNHCR – to increase their quotas for resettling refugees not adequately protected in third countries. The EP should support the Mediterranean Task Force’s proposed feasibility study on the joint processing of protection claims outside the EU, and the Commission’s proposal to move towards a common approach for humanitarian permits and visas.

All these actions would contribute to reshaping the EU’s external action related to migration, notably in the Mediterranean. They would also enhance the EU’s credibility vis-à-vis those third countries that accept significant number of migrants and refugees, and that most directly bear the consequences of their neighbours’ conflicts. (This is the case today for Lebanon and Turkey, as a result of the Syrian civil war). A modified EU approach could also project a more nuanced and positive view of migration – a change that might, in turn, influence the way migration is perceived more broadly within the EU.”

Click here or here for the Analysis.

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Interview with Frontex Director Laitinen

Several months ago the Finnish newspaper Fifi Voima published an interview with Frontex Director Ilkka Laitinen.  It is an interesting article if you read Finnish or use a translator (unfortunately Google translate does not handle Finnish well).

One interesting point from the article is Director Laitinen’s clear insistence that Frontex is not legally capable of violating human rights.  This is not a new position on the part of Frontex, but the Director is very emphatic in his position.  When asked about who could be held responsible for rights violations that might occur during Frontex coordinated joint operations, the Director indicated that Frontex is of the opinion that the operation and any potential human rights violations taking place are the responsibility of the Member States, not Frontex .

[Kenen vastuu?

Frontex koordinoi EU:n jäsenmaiden yhteisiä operaatioita maalla, merellä ja ilmassa. Käytännössä kyse on siitä, että esimerkiksi suomalaiset rajavartijat partioivat Välimerellä ja saksalaiset Kreikan ja Turkin rajalla paikallisten mukana. Kunkin operaation johdossa on yksi EU-valtio.

Frontexin kanta on, että operaatiosta ja niissä tapahtuvista mahdollisista ihmisoikeusloukkauksista ovat vastuussa jäsenmaat, ei Frontex.

Ilkka Laitinen ei esimerkiksi anna takuita siitä, etteikö hänen johtamansa viraston koordinoimissa operaatioissa ole käännytetty laittomasti siirtolaisveneitä Välimerellä. Hän perustelee tätä sillä, että vastuu toimista on jäsenmailla.]

Click here for link to article “Miehemme rajalla.”

 

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Statewatch Analysis – “New EU rules on maritime surveillance: will they stop the deaths and push-backs in the Mediterranean?”

Statewatch last month released a new Analysis of the EU Regulation for Frontex-coordinated surveillance of external sea borders which is scheduled for a plenary vote in the European Parliament in April.  The Analysis, written by Prof. Steve Peers, Univ. of Essex Law School, reviews the enhanced protections to be afforded to intercepted or rescued migrants relative to the earlier Council Decision which was annulled by the CJEU.  The Analysis also highlights concerns with various provisions within the Regulation, including:

  • One significant concern with the Regulation is due to the fact that “the Regulation does not contemplate the scenario of migrants being intercepted in the territorial waters of third States.”  (Frenzen’s Note: This raises a serious concern in regard to the push-back and interception practices which have been carried out for many years within the territorial waters of Mauritania and Senegal within Frontex’s Operation Hera.  Additionally, prior to the Libyan revolution, Libya authorised Italy to conduct joint maritime patrols within Libyan territorial waters.  It is safe to assume that Frontex and some EU Member States will continue to seek the ability to intercept migrant boats within the territorial waters of third States.);
  • While the Regulation requires that migrants intercepted in the territorial sea or contiguous zone of an EU Member State be disembarked in that Member State, “this [requirement] is subject to a crucial exception: it is possible under the Regulation that a vessel that has made it this close to a Member State could still be ordered to alter course towards another destination.”;
  • While the bulk of the EU’s asylum legislation does not apply [to interceptions which occur outside of the territorial sea of a Member State,] the EU’s qualification Directive does – since there is nothing in the text of that Directive to limit its territorial scope. But the wording of the Regulation is confusing in this regard, since it does not refer to the detailed text of that Directive but rather to general standards on non-refoulement, which are different from that Directive in some respects….”;
  • Member States are required to “use all means” to identify intercepted migrants, assess their particular circumstances, and inform them of the intended place of disembarkation, in order to give the migrants the opportunity to assert a non-refoulement claim.  The Regulation states that the Frontex operational plan, “where necessary,” must provide for interpreters and legal advisors on shore. “[T]he Council Presidency points out the ‘wiggle room’ granted by the words ‘where necessary’ and ‘use all means.’”

Click here or here for Statewatch Analysis.

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UNHCR Calls on Countries to Protect Syrian Refugees and Ensure Access to Territory; Syrians are Now Largest Nationality Using Sea Routes to Reach Italy

In a statement made earlier today, UNHCR noted the “growing numbers of Syrians seeking safety in Europe” and expressed its concern “about severe difficulties these displaced people face during their passage and at borders. This includes the risk of drowning at sea and incidents where Syrians have been dangerously hindered in their journeys.”

UNHCR estimates that 6,233 Syrians have arrived in Italy by boat since August compared with about 350 in all of 2012. Earlier this week the Italian Interior Ministry reported that Syrians are now the largest nationality arriving in Italy; so far in 2013, approximately 25,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by boat, of these 9,805 were Syrian, 8,843 Eritrean, 3,140 Somali, 1,058 from Mali, and 879 Afghan.  The Interior Ministry believes the majority departed from Libyan territory. (The Italian Ministry’s statistics vary from the UNHCR’s statistics but both sets of statistics confirm the increasing numbers of Syrians.)

Excerpts from the UNHCR statement:

There are “growing numbers of Syrians trying to cross the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy because of anxiety about their security. Many mention physical assaults, verbal threats, detention and deportation. The Egyptian government estimates that some 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians currently reside in Egypt, of whom more than 122,000 are registered with UNHCR.”

There are an “increasing number of unaccompanied children making the voyage…. As the cost of travel can range from U$2,000-US$5,000 per person, some families opt to send their children alone or with relatives or friends.”

“UNHCR notes with concern that over 800 Syrians have been arrested in Egypt since August for attempting to illegally depart and 144, including 44 children, have been deported to third countries. …Although charges have not been laid, approximately 589 Syrians remain in administrative detention, including women and 84 children. UNHCR is seeking access to the detained in order to properly verify numbers, conditions, and needs, or provide legal assistance.”

“UNHCR is calling [on the EU and other partners] for a number of measures to prevent further tragedies and increase responsibility sharing.  UNHCR calls upon states beyond Syria’s immediate region to explore concrete and meaningful ways of expressing solidarity, notably with a view to sharing the immense burden and protection responsibilities currently being assumed by the countries neighbouring Syria and its vicinity, such as Egypt. Warning signs in some hosting countries testify to the potentially destabilizing impact of the Syrian refugee influx that aggravates the already severe political, security, and economic repercussions of the Syria conflict.”

Click here for full UNHCR statement.

Click here for ANSA article.

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