11 July 2014
“If Europeans are serious about preventing tragedies at sea, they should admit that the lack of legal ways is what is forcing people to travel illegally and lose their lives.”
As the news of refugees fleeing war and oppression and arriving at European shores continue to hit the headlines, the ECRE Weekly Bulletin has spoken to Father Mussie Zerai, Eritrean Catholic priest based in Italy, Chair of the Habeshia Agency, and relentless advocate for the rights of refugees. Father Zerai talked to Dawit Friew about the reasons why refugees risk their lives crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean, what can be done to prevent further loss of lives of migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, and the consequences of populist rhetoric and harsh migration policies.
Dawit Friew is an Ethiopian journalist living in Norway. He fled Ethiopia to Sudan and then to Libya, where when the war broke out, he was forced onto a rickety boat. Dawit, like many other refugees on the boat, had Father Muzzie’s mobile number, in case they got into trouble.
You are in frequent contact with refugees who attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe. Why do you think they risk their lives and that of their children by getting on a boat that they know might sink?
These people had their reasons to leave their country. Whether they are running from poverty or persecution, they need a safe country where they are protected so that they don’t have to keep taking risks.
Concerning Eritreans, since they are not safe in Sudan, they cross the Sahara. Living in a refugee camp in Sudan might mean waiting for resettlement for 7 or 8 years. The camps are run by Sudanese security personnel and I have enough information to believe that at least some of these people have good relations with traffickers and kidnappers. Sometimes Sudanese authorities use refugees to bargain with their Eritrean and Ethiopian counterparts. There is no point for those young women and men in staying in those camps.
They can’t legally live in Sudan. But can they leave Sudan legally? No embassy in Sudan has its door open for asylum seekers. They will not be granted a visa to go somewhere else legally. So they have to take risks and cross the Sahara.
The situation in Libya is even worse. The fact that Libya isn’t signatory of the UN Refugee Convention is not the only problem. The country is not safe for migrants and refugees.
These are some of the reasons why refugees risk their lives and that of their family.
“Eritrean refugees can’t legally live in Sudan. But can they leave Sudan legally? No embassy in Sudan has its door open for asylum seekers. They will not be granted a visa to go somewhere else legally. So they have to take risks and cross the Sahara”.
According to UNHCR, 5,778 Eritreans arrived by sea to Italy from January to September 2013. The Italian Interior Ministrybelieves that most people departed from Libyan territory. What do you think are the reasons for this?
I think it is natural for people to move from place to place when they are persecuted or feel unsafe. People in Europe move within Europe or to other continents for a better life. The same applies for these people. They left their country for a better life
As Libya is not a safe country, people can’t stay there. The security situation in Libya is the reason people are leaving the country. The Libyan government is not in full control of the country, the militias are running the country and they are not accountable to anyone but themselves. It would be very difficult for people to remain in a lawless country like the current Libya. If their human rights were respected and they had protection and an opportunity to work and go to school somewhere else, people would stop coming to Europe. Libya was bad during the Gaddafi era but it became worse when the revolution erupted. Black people were accused of being mercenaries and that accusation has continued even after Gaddafi died. The country is not safe for Africans regardless of whether they are living legally there.
Unless Libya signs and respects the UN Refugee Convention and recognises UNHCR, it would be difficult for asylum seekers to remain in Libya. Meanwhile, we oppose any agreement between Libya and the EU or Italy involving asylum seekers.
Migrants continue to die in the Mediterranean. Has Europe learnt any lessons? What can be done to prevent further loss of lives of migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe?
The figures available are based only on the information we have but there are thousands of people who are unaccounted for. Nobody can tell how many people have lost their lives. It was estimated that around 20,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean over the past two decades. After each horrible incident, Europe pledges to stop the human tragedy but they have never actually realised this promise. They do however take many steps toward closing the European borders, including signing agreements with dictators in Africa and elsewhere to secure their borders, but nothing tangible when it comes to saving lives.
A good example is the Lampedusa tragedy of last October. The European authorities had, as usual, many words about the need to avoid such tragedies. But again they fail to take concrete actions and they continued to work hard to secure their borders. Saving lives has never been a priority for the EU. Their mission is not to save lives, but to close their borders. They sent military boats close to the Libyan waters. Before any suspected boat can reach international waters, they contact the Libyan navy to escort them back to Libya. To support these operations Italy gave many fast boats to Libya.
So, as far as I am concerned, the EU has not learned any lesson from any of the tragedies we have witnessed in the last 20 years.
We have been urging the Europeans to open the doors of their embassies for asylum seekers, to resettle recognised asylum seekers or refugees before they cross the Sahara or the sea. This is the only way in which we could prevent further loss of lives. If Europeans are serious when they say they want to stop the tragedies at sea they should admit the fact that the lack of legal ways is what is forcing people to travel illegally and losing their lives.
“The EU has not learned any lesson from any of the tragedies at sea we have witnessed in the last 20 years”.
There have been reports of Eritreans, Syrians and other refugees refusing to be fingerprinted in Italy and trying to travel underground to other European countries. What are their reasons?
The reception and living conditions for refugees and asylum seekers in Italy are really bad. After being granted international protection in Italy, refugees should leave the reception centre. Without speaking the local language and with no integration policy, they can’t integrate in Italy.They live on the streets, they rely on charities for their food and clothing. They live under the poverty level.They are forced to be beggars and that is a shame on Italy and a shame on Europe.It is difficult for a person to believe that he or she has got protection while living on streets.
Their situation is getting worse and worse and that is the reason why these people are running from Italy in their thousands whether they were fingerprinted or not. Of course for the same reason, new arrivals are refusing to seek asylum in that country. They have every reason to refuse to seek asylum in Italy as they could end up begging on the street.
“It is difficult for people to believe that they have got protection while living on streets”
How can European countries share their responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees?
If the signatories of the Dublin Regulation had the same integration policies and the same standard of reception, the system could be fair enough and people might not wish to change countries. The biggest failure of the Dublin system is the lack of similar policies across Europe and the big gap between northern European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland and the southern countries like Italy, Greece and Malta. It is morally unfair to return these people to countries like Italy where they would be in a dangerous situation. The Dublin Regulation should exclude those countries whose reception and integration policies do not meet EU standards. Thousands of refugees live in extreme poverty in Italy. Returning people to live on the streets is unfair. I believe other countries should not return refugees to Italy as it is the case with Greece. The only difference I can see between Italy and Greece is the fact that the police and the people of Italy don’t harass refugees whether they live on the street or in abandoned buildings.
Other EU countries are doing nothing to improve the situation for refugees in Italy. At the same time, Malta and Italy are reluctant to introduce integration policies. They want to remain transit countries and that is why they expose people to unnecessary suffering.
Italy receives most of the asylum seekers crossing by boat. Because of the big numbers they receive by boat, one might think that Italy has the biggest number of asylum seekers in its territory but that is not the case. Also, not all people arriving by boat remain in Italy as not everyone is fingerprinted.
If the reception and integration standards were the same in Italy and Norway there would be no reason for people to travel on to Norway and seek asylum there. People need a safe country for them and their family to settle.
“Other EU countries are doing nothing to improve the situation for refugees in Italy. At the same time, Malta and Italy are reluctant to introduce integration policies. They want to remain transit countries and that is why they expose people to unnecessary suffering”.
Habeshia has been very critical of the situation in the Sinai region on the border between Egypt and Israel. What kind of dangers do refugees face in this region?
Refugees are at risk of being abducted in the Sinai region.The hostages, mostly from Eritrea and Ethiopia, are brutally tortured and they are forced to pay thousands of dollars for their freedom.
Often it is argued that politicians implement harsh migration and asylum policies to increase their popularity among voters and secure positive election results. Are politicians who support harsh migration and asylum policies following their citizens or contributing to the increase of xenophobia in our societies?
I don’t think European citizens in general are supporters of harsh policies such as pushbacks or detention but what some politicians are telling their citizens is increasing racism and xenophobia. Populist politicians have been preaching hatred to win more votes. They are very negative about migration. They talk about losing their culture, migrants taking jobs, increase in crimes, etc. According to them, migration is to blame for all this.
These politicians believe that by treating migrants and refugees badly and by making their life miserable, they can avoid further arrivals. But that is incorrect. People are leaving their countries for their safety. Regardless of how bad you treat them, people will continue to come until they find a safe place where they and their family can have a future. I also believe that they begin by treating refugees badly; tomorrow they will treat each other the same way.
Would you give any advice to NGOs and activists advocating for the rights of refugees and migrants in Europe?
NGOs, activists or other organisations advocating the rights of refugees should give refugees the chance to say what they need. For solutions to work in the long term, refugees have to be part of the solution.
*Dawit Friew is an Ethiopian journalist living in Norway.
This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 11 July 2014.
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