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Migrants and the Mediterranean: UN rights expert on human rights of migrants follow up visit to Italy for further development of his study on EU border management End of Mission Statement

Rome, 5 December 2014

Following an invitation by the Government, I conducted a visit to Italy from 2 to 6 December 2014. I met with Government officials responsible for border management, international organisations present in Italy, civil society organisations and migrant organisations, to discuss the complex management of the Italian border.

I would like to express my appreciation for the support and cooperation the Italian Government provided in planning and coordinating the visit. I would also like to sincerely thank the representation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Italy for their generous support and assistance.

This mission to Italy forms part of a follow-up to my 2012 year-long study on the management of the external borders of the European Union, which took me to Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, Greece and Brussels where I met with EU Institutions. I decided to conduct this follow-up study because of the unprecedented number of migrants and asylum seekers who have arrived in the Euro-Mediterranean region this year, the high number of casualties at sea, policy changes in different countries and the arrival of a new Commission in Brussels. Italy’s proximity to North Africa makes it a key entry point for those wishing to reach Europe. The study will result in a country mission report and a thematic report on EU border management to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015.

I’m satisfied that the collaboration between Italian authorities and the Praesidium Project has continued. I’m still concerned that some sea arrivals may lead to quick return to the country of origin, without any member institution of the Praesidium Project having been able to access and interview the migrants in order to detect protection needs and vulnerabilities.

I commend the Italian authorities for taking a bold initiative after the Lampedusa tragedy of October 2013, and particularly the Italian Navy and Coast Guards – as well as the hundreds of merchant and fishing vessels which participated – for the excellent work done during the Mare Nostrum operation. Searching and rescuing close to 160,000 persons in 2014 is a major success, even if it is marred by the loss of life of over 3,000 persons. I’ve been very impressed by the political firmness of resolve and the material investment placed in this operation. Italy has been an example for the rest of Europe: saving lives must obviously always come before political calculations and deterrence strategies.

I regret that EU member States did not join in Italy’s efforts to save lives and decide to extend and share in the Mare Nostrum operation. I’m particularly dismayed by official comments according to which saving lives at sea constitutes a “pull factor” for irregular migration. Although search and rescue will not be its main focus, it is hoped that the Frontex Triton operation will be, in the coming months, as effective at saving lives as the Mare Nostrum operation was.

I commend the Italian authorities for reducing the maximum time of migration detention to three months. This also is an example for the rest of Europe. I encourage, however, Italian authorities to develop non-custodial alternative measures to detention and ensure that detention is thus effectively a measure of last resort, based on specific and restrictively interpreted criteria, tailored to the individual circumstances of the case, and limited to the minimum time necessary.

The Italian authorities were enthusiastic about the Khartoum process. If it helps combat human trafficking and increases the professionalism, competence and capabilities of the local law enforcement authorities, including on human rights and gender issues, it will serve a worthy cause. It may also be conceived as part of a long-term plan of support for the development assistance cooperation and the political stabilisation of the countries of origin and transit.

However, if it is conceived mainly as an enabler of migration control mechanisms aimed at preventing migrants from reaching and crossing the Mediterranean, whatever the consequences in terms of human rights violations, it will merely drive migrants further underground, empower and entrench smuggling rings, increase the precariousness of migrants, and foster more exploitation and human rights violations.

On migration matters, Europe must develop a long term vision, with a generational strategic plan based on facilitating mobility inside, as well as through European external borders. This plan must be based on serious considerations of the economic and demographic needs for migration to Europe at all skill levels, accompanied by a long-term investment plan in migrant selection and integration policies and programmes, as well as supported by a serious political discourse that will emphasize the needs, the advantages and the challenges, as well as counter the fantasies, threats and stereotypes carried by the nationalist populist discourse.

Europe must provide more avenues for regular migration, including for low-wage migration which is much needed in many sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, construction, hospitality and care-giving. It must also implement a large-scale resettlement programme for refugees, in coordination with other Global North States and UNHCR.

Offering such incentives to use legal means to enter the EU territory and establish themselves will drive many migrants away from dangerous and costly smuggling operations and allow EU countries to regain the control of their borders.

In order to do so, Europe should also share with the front line countries the cost and operation of open reception centres where migrants would be directed for the registration, counselling on various issues (health, labour, trafficking, rights…), protection needs assessment, and referral when needed.

Countries of the front line of the Southern external EU border, such as Italy, need more than encouraging words and funding. Hosting hundreds of thousands of migrants on their territory, when many of those migrants do not want to be there in the first place, is not a sustainable policy. All countries of the EU must share in the welcoming of asylum seekers. A programme for the quick relocation of asylum seekers across Europe – according to a distribution key and taking into account the wishes of the asylum seekers themselves, the possibilities of family reunification and humanitarian considerations – is essential to an equitable redistribution of responsibilities between States. If well-managed, such a system would constitute an incentive for asylum seekers to actually get registered in the first European country of entry. It would encourage asylum seekers to not use the evasion tactics that are now systematically employed to avoid their identification and thus the application of the Dublin logic.

The reception of asylum seekers and irregular migrants cannot sustainably be conducted in emergency mode. This migration must now be considered, for the foreseeable future, as a feature of economic and social life of Global North states. EU member states need therefore to develop a durable and well managed reception capacity that can sustain the foreseeable seasonal migration peaks and ensure that there is a shared responsibility by all EU member states  for example, by some states offering part of their reception capacity to other frontline states which are experiencing migration peaks.

A serious long-term collective investment is needed in order to achieve results. States must create an environment that builds trust in the systems put in place and confidence that the human rights of the migrants will be at the centre of the preoccupations.

Since European countries are striving to create a common asylum policy, two mechanisms could be envisaged. First, States should mutually recognise each other’s Refugee Status Determination (RSD) decisions. Second, in order to gain confidence in each other’s RSD systems, they could include as decision-makers in each country a roster of decision-makers from other countries, at first decision and at review levels. With the help of EASO and UNHCR, this would allow for the sharing of expertise, experience, good practices and lessons learned, and it would create trust in the capacity of each national system to be grounded on a common knowledge base relating to country of origin information, to be developed around a common interpretation of the legal criteria for protection and to be responsive to the same factors as the others.

I commend Italy for adopting a bill that will better protect migrant children and bank on their easy integration to Italian social fabric if the proper policies and practices are put in place. The idea of offering them integration avenues through language training, schooling and professional training programmes is promising, as most youths will adapt quickly to their new environment and become productive citizens. The emphasis on quality age determination, through multidisciplinary mechanism and with the benefit of the doubt for children who are certainly under 20, seems a cautious approach that favours protection over expediency. The test for this idea will be whether it’ll be possible to sustain the political resolve necessary to implement such a policy over the long term.

I encourage Italian authorities to develop a more structured system of guardianship for unaccompanied minors. It is important for their protection and development that a guardian be quickly appointed, that the guardian has the necessary expertise, capacity, experience and competence, and that the guardian be appropriately supported with the necessary resources. The best interest of the child depends on the guardian being able to make the best and quickest decisions possible on all matters of concern to the child.

I also commend the Italian authorities for preparing a new citizenship law that will allow easier access to Italian citizenship for migrants born in Italy and for youths educated in Italy. Again, implementation of the future provisions – especially the number of beneficiaries and the processing time of the applications – will determine whether the plan is successful.