Report on our own event ‘Heading to Europe’

“People Will Come No Matter What”

On 16 May 2014, the Interest Group on Migration and Refugee Law of the European Society of International Law, in close cooperation with the Centre for Migration Law of the Radboud University Nijmegen and the Amsterdam Center for International Law of the University of Amsterdam, organized a panel discussion on migration by sea in the Mediterranean, entitled ‘Heading to Europe: Safe Haven or Graveyard?’. The panel discussion, which took place in Nijmegen, brought together approximately 50 scholars, government officials and practitioners working in the field of migration and refugee law and policy.

In the weeks preceding the panel discussion, a string of boat tragedies occurred in the Mediterranean in which more than 100 migrants and refugees are believed to have perished. The frequency with which such tragedies take place, demonstrates the urgency of the situation and sparked the idea of organizing a panel discussion on the topic. The aim of the panel discussion was two-fold: first, to provide an overview of the existing and developing legal framework applicable to migration by sea in the Mediterranean and, second, to reflect on the wider sociological implications of that legal framework. 

The first panel on the legal aspects of migration by sea in the Mediterranean was kicked off by Maarten den Heijer. He gave a presentation about the latest Frontex regulation on maritime surveillance operations. It was welcomed for including binding rules on search and rescue. However, in terms protection, disembarkation and accountability, much is still left to be desired. Next was Tineke Strik, who spoke about her investigation into the ‘left-to-die boat’. She made a series of recommendations to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, such as avoiding differing intepretations of what constitutes distress, taking away reasons for not rescuing boats and intensifying effort to share the burden placed on frontline states. Marcin Pruss, who closed the first panel, argued that, despite the numerous calls for improvements to the legal framework, it was not likely that new legal avenues for protection would be adopted. 2

The second panel, during which the sociological aspects of migration by sea in the Mediterranean were discussed, commenced with a presentation from Joris Schapendonk. His research into the trajectories of Sub-Saharan African migrants shows that they don’t travel in a straight line. Rather, legal developments, such as the conclusion of bilateral agreements, play into the the number and direction of migrant flows. Mirjam van Reisen, who spoke next, explains that this is the reason why, after the signing of the Italy-Libya agreement, human trafficking via the Sinai increased significantly. According to Aspasia Papadopoulou, who brought the second panel to a close, this goes to show that “people will come no matter what”. Therefore, it is important to have legal avenues so that migrants and refugees will not continue to head to Europe whilst risking their lives.

At the end of the panel discussion, Elspeth Guild offered some concluding remarks. According to her, the panel discussion has made it clear that the legal rules do not always have the intended effect of decreading the number of arrivals to Europe. Therefore, we should critically reflect on the legal framework, bearing in mind that the developments at the external borders cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, they must be seen as an integral part of the decision to create a Europe without borders. Instead of trying to displace responsibility onto human traffckers, member states should take responsibility for creating a Europe where there is need for border control measures in the Mediterranean.

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