Europe’s boat migrants

From: “the Bridge” International federation of red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Europe department – Spring 2006
“We have a big responsibility here. We are buffers between the police and the migrants”

… The president of the Italian Red Cross, Massimo Barra, has now publicly said he is concerned to ensure that the people detained are treated humanely within the country’s relatively tough immigration laws. If necessary, Barra says he would be prepared to accept the task of managing all Italy’s 23 TRACs. From the Red Cross point of view, it is a bold, some would say high-risk, initiative. The debate on the detention centres in Italy has been vigorous, including allegations Italy is breaking the 1951 Geneva refugee convention by putting boat migrants arriving on Lampedusa straight onto planes back to North Africa without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. The Italian government says the boat people are economic migrants, not refugees, but has denied independent access to the detention centre on the island.

At Ponte Galeria Red Cross workers argue that if a request is made for asylum, any deportation proceedings against a migrant must be frozen until it’s heard. Barra says he plans to set up a Red Cross branch on Lampedusa, with a specific brief to handle migration issues. And he is adamant that no migrant will be denied access to asylum procedures under the nose of the Red Cross, there or in other TRAC lock-ups. ‘If the Italian government breaks the law, I have told our lawyers to speak up,’ he told The Bridge in an interview in Rome. ‘We must try to educate public opinion about human rights and tolerance,’ he says. And while ‘it’s not our job to debate the rights and wrongs of the law, we can make sure people condemned by the law [to deportation] are treated humanely.’ Only about 10 per cent of the migrants who end up at Ponte Galeria do ask for asylum, or even temporary humanitarian protection, according to Red Cross workers. They are, overwhelmingly, labour migrants, but their desperation leads them to risk their lives to get to Italy and Europe beyond. They even harm themselves rather than be deported, but from Ponte Galeria last year 67 per cent eventually were.

‘The national groups have different ways of trying to repel the police when the moment comes,’ explained one Red Cross worker. ‘Ukrainians will eat tobacco, which makes them very sick. Nigerian women smear shit on their bodies and throw used menstrual towels. North African men slash their arms.’ In 2002 Nigerian women burnt out their dormitory after they were identified by a consular official. No more than two in a hundred people at Ponte Galeria will volunteer where they are really from, according to workers at the centre. They have destroyed their passports and papers. Even visiting consuls are sometimes foxed. There have been cases of people allow¬ing themselves to be deported to the wrong country in the knowledge that they will then be returned to Italy. The most recent figures available from the Italian government show arrivals on Lampedusa fell from nearly 24,000 in 2002 to more than 14,000 in 2003 and a similar number in 2004. But the indications in an Italian intelligence-agency report to parliament are that they rose sharply again last year, although no complete figures were available as The Bridge went to press.

The Red Cross volunteers I spoke to in researching this article were all deeply shocked by the risks people are now taking to get into EU territory, and by what they will do – including self-mutilation – to avoid being repatriated. Refugee protection is a big concern, but the fact that many, probably most, are ordinary ‘economic migrants’ makes it more, not less, disturbing. And the solution perhaps more elusive.