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Irregular migration after the Aquarius incident: moving beyond the law. A reflection on Fink and Gombeer

Published on July 5, 2018        Author:  and
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Introduction

Last month, EJIL: Talk! published a piece by Fink and Gombeer on the legality of Italy and Malta’s recent failure to provide a safe haven to a rescue vessel Aquarius. Essentially, the authors concluded that the refusal by these states to open their harbours is ‘regrettable, at the very least, but not necessarily unlawful.’ On their view, for the reasons elaborated in their analysis, neither the law of the sea nor human rights law have been ‘evidently’ breached. It follows that these two branches of law, in the context of ‘Aquarius-like incidents’, provide rather no avail to asylum seekers; in other words: law has its own limits.

The fate of Aquarius and her passengers is yet another example of an endless list of scenarios where people from predominantly war-torn, repressed or impoverished territories often attempt to irregularly cross international borders; a large number of them seeking help, safety and a better life. This and similar events illustrate not only that the handling of the arrival of asylum seekers, especially in Europe, has fostered multiple crises, but also that irregular migration will not cease to occur. Hence, the need for a long-term, responsible and visionary solution is evident.

Fink and Gombeer reflect de lege lata, and their diagnosis is valid and all the more relevant nowadays, de lege ferenda, as the governance and management of migration is largely being reformed, on multiple levels, precisely to address contemporary challenges and expectations. Among others, the European Union (EU) attempts to reform its migration and asylum policy, predominantly the so-called Dublin system, and the United Nations (UN) is expected to adopt its Global Compact on Migration by late 2018.

Having read Fink and Gombeer’s analysis, we cannot help but reflect on their main conclusion in light of these reforms. These authors basically identify a ‘gap’: the law has its own limits. We, in turn, reflect further on filling the said ‘gap’. We ask what can be done to overcome the limitations of law in order to ensure more holistic protection of asylum seekers?

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The Aquarius incident: navigating the turbulent waters of international law

Published on June 14, 2018        Author:  and
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Between Saturday 9 June and Sunday 10 June, 629 migrants were rescued from overcrowded boats in the Central Mediterranean in search and rescue (SAR) operations carried out by NGOs and the Italian navy. They were taken on board by the Aquarius, a rescue vessel operated by the German NGO SOS Méditerranée and flying the flag of Gibraltar. On Sunday, the Aquarius was on its way to Italy, whose Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) had coordinated the operations. Around 35 nautical miles off the southern coast of Italy, Italian authorities ordered the Aquarius to stop. Italy refused the Aquarius access to its ports and prohibited disembarkation of the rescued migrants on Italian territory. This, Italy’s new Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini announced, would be Italy’s new policy for any NGO vessel rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.

Italy’s instructions ‘manifestly go against international rules’, Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tweeted on Sunday night, but then himself denied the ship to dock in the port of Valletta. Malta in turn, Muscat claimed, was thereby acting in full compliance with international law. For another 24 hours, the Aquarius remained on stand-by, floating between Malta and Italy. Maltese and Italian vessels supplied the Aquarius with water and food, but neither of them gave in by offering safe haven.

On Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spain could facilitate disembarkation of all 629 rescued individuals in the port of Valencia. When it appeared that this journey would be too dangerous for passengers and crew of the Aquarius and the Valencia-plan seemed off the table again, Italy offered its ships to facilitate safe passage to Spain.

This whole episode raises a broad variety of questions, but one stands out: Are Italy and Malta violating international law by not allowing the Aquarius to find a safe haven in one of their ports? Two legal regimes are particularly relevant in this respect: the law of the sea and international human rights law. As we argue, neither provides much clarity in relation to Aquarius-like incidents. Read the rest of this entry…