Saturday, June 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Greens call out EU, Italy for turning backs on asylum seekers

Tineke Strik, a Dutch member of the Greens in the European Parliament, said Italy and the European Union are cynically making the plight of asylum seekers worse.

(CN) — After a visit to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, a member of the Greens in the European Parliament on Wednesday blasted Italy's far-right government and the European Union for allowing migrants and asylum seekers to be mistreated and to die in their dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea and make it to Europe.

In traveling to Italy, Dutch parliamentarian Tineke Strik sought to shine a light on the plight of migrants and asylum seekers who set off from Libya and Tunisia on unseaworthy boats and also to castigate Rome and Brussels for what she described as inhumane policies.

Lampedusa lies only about 80 miles off the coast from Tunisia and about 185 miles from Libya. Every year, tens of thousands of people from Africa and Asia seek to gain entry to the EU across the central Mediterranean. Their attempts usually see them trying to reach Lampedusa, getting picked up at sea by rescuers or crossing all the way to Sicily or Italy's mainland.

In recent months, the number of migrants and asylum seekers has risen once again, adding new urgency to a long-running debate over what to do with the large numbers of migrants in the EU. As in the United States, migration is a source of fierce political clashes in Europe and it has fueled the rise of far-right political parties that say the continent must close off its borders. Generally, those on the left, such as the Greens, say the EU must abide by international humanitarian laws and afford people a chance to claim asylum.

On Lampedusa, asylum applicants are housed in a large processing center which at times can see severe overcrowding. In recent weeks, Strik said up to 4,000 people were being housed at the facility, which she said is designed to handle 400 people.

“It was very clear to see that the conditions are far from sufficient,” Strik said during a news briefing Wednesday in Rome. “I was pretty shocked about the bad condition of the hot spot.”

Strik is part of the center-left Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament. She is a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs and has focused on migration issues.

During her visit, she found the center was dirty and lacking in basic services, including adequate medical staff, she said. She blamed the lack of medical staff for the death of three people during the previous month.

Asylum seekers are no longer allowed to leave the facility, a change from what she observed during a previous trip to Lampedusa, she said.

“It's a detention situation, so people are kept there,” she said.

In June, the Italian government says the International Red Cross will be allowed a presence at the center, but Strik doubted conditions will improve greatly.

She charged Italy's new government under far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has made the work of non-government humanitarian vessels much harder by restricting the number of rescues they can make and by forcing them to dock at distant Italian ports.

Meanwhile, she said the Italian and Maltese coast guards are refusing to assume responsibility for search and rescue efforts over large swaths of the Mediterranean.

“There's a whole area in the Mediterranean Sea where there's no rescue capacity,” she said.

She blasted EU governments for entering deals with Libya and Tunisia to step up patrols looking for migrant boats.

“The Libyan coast guard is intercepting more and more boats in a very violent way, many people are drowning during these so-called rescue activities and then they are pulled back again to the Libyan territory where they end up in horrible detention situations,” she said.

Strik said an asylum seeker she spoke to in Lampedusa told her “people are tortured in the [Libyan] detention centers and that everyone has to watch the torture as a kind of example, like if they don't behave or if they don't give money, then they will get the same treatment.”

She charged that Libya's coast guard “is deeply involved in trafficking, smuggling, and torture and slavery itself.”

“They profit from the system,” she said. “They get a lot of money from the migrants through disbursement or just demanding it to give them a crossing to the EU.”

“The cynical thing of course is that the EU is funding the Libyan coast guard,” she added. “We continue this whole perpetual cycle of abuse and crimes against humanity, although the EU says we want to break the business model of smugglers.”

She worried a similar pattern is taking root in Tunisia under President Kais Saied, whose leadership since 2019 has become increasingly authoritarian.

“Autocrats are very keen to cooperate with the EU because it silences the human rights criticism of the EU on their countries,” she said. “You see it with Egypt, with Turkey, with Morocco.”

She added: “Autocrats benefit from this tendency to externalize asylum procedures and border controls and I think the EU should be very careful to keep their own responsibility and also their own standards on protection and human rights.”

Strik accused Italy of speeding up wrongful deportations of people with asylum claims.

“People can be returned very quickly; we see that with Tunisia,” she said. “In practice, they hardly get a chance to apply for asylum.”

She said the EU is looking at passing new rules that would make it even easier for member states to deport asylum seekers by allowing them to declare they are facing a migratory crisis or that a state outside the EU is deliberately pushing asylum seekers toward their borders. Belarus and Turkey have been accused in recent years of intentionally sending asylum seekers toward the EU's borders.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Categories:Civil Rights, Government, International, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.