In a few days the lives of three young people have been destroyed by the effects of the exacerbation of EU internal border controls. Similar tragedies have been feared for some time. They are not the first occurring, since migrants have had to make themselves invisible to try and cross borders and have done so by hiding and by means of dangerous strategies, such as getting on trains transporting wares. The risk for migrants to die is extremely high, but the alternatives they often find along the way include being refouled at borders, or being victim, as largely documented, of an internal deportation towards Southern Italian, or being illegally expelled to their country of origin.
As the rigorous report “Hotspot Italy” by Amnesty International explains, European leaders “are determined to reduce the movement of migrants and refugees towards other member states” and “have pressed Italian authorities to the limits of legality, and sometimes beyond it”. The result is that traumatised people arriving in Italy, following agonizing travel experiences, become victims of vitiated procedures, and in some cases of serious forms of violence by police forces and/or of illegal expulsions.
Witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International and activists, that monitor the transit of migrants in border areas and support them, suggest many analogies between the places of “entry” and “exit” across Northern Italy.
The dramatic episode of Ventimiglia, where a migrant died following an overflow of the Roia river, remind us of similar shameful tragedies that are promptly forgotten. Just over a year ago, in Gorizia, following an overflow of the Isonzo river, 160 people run the risk of losing their lives. All of them had right to international protection and reception and had been abandoned in an inhuman structure along the river bank.
In Bolzano, a young Eritrean man of only 17 years of age was run over by a train transporting wares while he was trying to hide in a carriage to by-pass the systematic inspections of Italian and Austrian police forces. Abel, this was his name, wanted to reach his brother in Frankfurt. This tragedy recalls the situation in Calais, where migrants have long been trying to get on lorries to cross the Channel Tunnel.
In Borghetto, about hundred kilometers South of Bolzano, another young Ethiopian female asylum seeker was run over by a train while she was walking disoriented, in the middle of the night, along the rails. The young woman was probably asked to get off the train because she had no valid train ticket. Nobody will ever know her name nor her age.
Many have been fearing similar evitable tragedies along the mobile border that separates Italy from Austria. Many of us know what the situation is like and we are aware that in front of the so-called “crisis of refugees”, Europe has decided to ensure free movement in the Schengen area while sacrificing migrants’ rights.
In order to re-instate the normal functioning of free movement in the Schengen area, the European Parliament – after having supported Erdogan’s wreckless agreement with Turkey, in May 2016 – opted to operate in two directions: to protect EU external borders (by transforming Frontex into the European Border and Coast Guard and by supporting the bilateral agreements (between European member states and migrants’ transit countries and countries’ of origin), and to protect the internal borders that are considered as too permeable.
After having let 175,000 migrants transit towards other EU member states, in 2014 and 2015, Italy decided to contrast, by all legal and non legal means, the movements of transit migrants. Is it not thanks to the Piano Alfano, which re-introduced systematic inspections along the Brenner axis, that Austria decided to re-consider constructing an anti-migrant barrier? He stated this himself on 13th May 2016, in a press conference that followed his meeting with Sobotka, the Austrian Ministry of Interior. On that occasion Alfano declared it had been a “very frank and practical meeting” and that Austria’s preoccupation for the arrival of many asylum seekers from Lybia was being dealt with by Italy to avoid the explosion of a crisis and the closure of the Brenner border. Alfano added that thanks to efficient Italian inspections – “the road and train routes towards the Brenner will be reinforced through the presence of police forces” – the border would not be closed, as “blocking the border would cause an enormous damage to the Italian and Austrian tourism industries, to the Italian import-export market and to people who must transit for work-related reasons”. With triumphant tones he finally stated that Italy wants to “safeguard the right to movement in Europe and that it must be free and safe” (sic!).
Since then inspections have been intensified and they have been stretched to reach Verona railway station, thus making it more and more difficult and risky for migrants to reach the border. In violation of the norms that prohibit systematic inspections at internal borders in the Schengen Area, the Brenner railway axis, and in particular the railway station in Verona and Bolzano, have become areas of discrimination with the “suspension of rights”. Racial inspections have been carried out at train platforms and on trains directed to the border.
At the same time migrants have been continuously refouled at the Brenner border. It is precisely these pervasive forms of control together with the missing provision of information to transit migrants that cause tragedies that could otherwise be avoided.
The death of the young Eritrean man is emblematic of the failure of European values: reception, solidarity, respect for human rights cannot be traced down in Abel’s story, nor in the life stories of other migrants dispersed by the failure of the Italian system of reception.
Abel arrived in Messina as an unaccompanied minor, hence, even more than others, he had right to reception and he had the right to be informed on his rights. Abel, particularly as an unaccompanied minor, should not have died while trying to reach his brother in another EU country. He was a victim of the Schengen and Dublin systems that should not apply to unaccompanied minors.
An unaccompanied minor has the right to family reunification. Additionally, as he was Eritrean, Abel could have benefited from relocation, a program that has been very much promoted by the European Union and that rather demonstrates the political and morale failure of the European Union itself. There is no reason why Abel should have tried to by-pass the asylum system. In principles he should have been protected by that same system.
The principles defined by the international conventions and laws are not fully implemented in the European Common System of Asylum. Unaccompanied minors are not granted a better reception than adults. On the contrary, in many cases they are not even identified as unaccompanied minors. In many cases, upon arrival, they are assigned an arbitrarily-defined age and photo-signalled as if they were over 18.
To date the post-arrival reception system does not grant the provision of legal support to unaccompanied minors and in the majority of cases, they do not receive any information at all. Furthermore, even in the rare cases in which they are effectively provided with information and in which they decide to follow the “legal path”, it is almost impossible for them to transit through internal borders, as European laws do in fact prevent them from doing so.
The mechanism of relocation has been officially defined as a failure of the Italian State and until now it has been implemented with a disorganized episodic approach.
The Council of Europe established that 40,000 people should be relocated from Italy, but European member states have made less than 5,000 places available and, to date, only 1,500 asylum seekers have benefited from relocation.
Moreover, the extremely lenghty procedure involved in relocation requires considerable trust and patience on the side of asylum seekers: they are kept waiting for months, with no definite information on their future. Additionally, although articles 8 to 11 of the Dublin Convention explicitly state this right, the possibility for asylum seekers to reach one of their relatives in another European members states remains a dream.
The procedure is complex and the support of lawyers is crucial for both individuals in the transit and destination countries. Some positive cases were reported in Calais and Ventimiglia. Yet their number is low, particularly if we compare it with the actual number of asylum seekers who do not even ask for support, as they think it would be in vain or, and asylum seekers who do not know they can ask at all.
A capillary system of legal support is still missing and the asylum law, that should in principle protect migrants’ right to self-determination, is not fully implemented, at least as far as family reunification is concerned. Following every and each tragedy we wonder whether they could be avoided. Certainly, it would not have been difficult to avoid Abel’s death: it would not have been necessary to call for the abolition of the Dublin and Schengen conventions, it would have been enough to ensure their correct implementation.
In face of the deadly flaws of the system, civil society must bear critical witness of the effects that the border control policies are having on migrants’ lives. As far as the “problem” is dealt with only from the point of view of public order and safety – as to grant the free movement of European wares and citizens alone – it cannot be affirmed that these tragedies are inevitable. We must work relentlessly for this paradigm to change, we must work relentlessly to make sure the life, the rights and the dignity of people do count and do come first.