Geneva - This year was not easy for people on the move from the southern shore of the Mediterranean. The pandemic persisted, the levels of forced displacement increased, the structural problems of the European immigration policy endured with some worrisome new proposals and crises, and the European governments continued to violate people’s right to seek asylum.

The first direct consequence of European immigration policies, mainly the pushbacks and the lack of regular, accessible, and safe routes to enter Europe, has been an increasing death toll at European borders. Asylum seekers and migrants who tried to access the EU last year in search of safety and dignity struggled to merely survive.

In February, 12 people were found frozen to death at the Turkish border, victims of Greek illegal pushbacks and European inhumane political games trapping asylum seekers and migrants in neglected no man’s lands.

   There is no such thing as an irregular asylum seeker. Irregulars are only the routes that Europe has for asylum seekers to arrive   

Michela Pugliese, Migration and Asylum Researcher at Euro-Med Monitor

In 2021, the number of those who arrived in Europe by land or sea and those who couldn’t saw a noticeable rise. The official number of sea and land arrivals to frontline states is 123,318. Meanwhile, those who have gone missing in the attempt are 3,231, double the previous year. In 2022, as of 12 June, the number of people reaching Europe is 41,140, and approximately 742 people have already died or gone missing in only six months while trying to reach the European Union.

The negligence of European institutions regarding the protection of asylum seekers’ and  migrants’ lives and deaths is clear when looking at the many policies implemented throughout this last year by EU Member States, brutalizing and discriminating against migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

The UK has stepped up its long list of draconian and inhuman measures aimed at curbing small boats from crossing the English Channel, especially with the recent deal with the government of Rwanda, concluded in April 2022, to transfer asylum seekers arriving in the UK and “outsource” asylum there.

The willingness and efforts to outsource asylum responsibility saw a disturbing evolution this last year, with the EU Commission itself proposing in February a Status Agreement to Senegal to deploy Frontex teams of standing corps and technical equipment, based on the false premise of tackling smuggling but actually as a new, tighter strategy of migration containment.

These externalization proposals are boosting a ruthless race to the bottom between governments in Europe, where success is measured by the reduction of arrivals rather than the level of integration and physical and mental wellbeing of refugees within the host society. On the contrary, refugees are often disregarded, if not openly restrained.

Denmark has increasingly tightened its immigration policies and has now some of the most restrictive rules in Europe, aimed at having “zero asylum applications.” In September, for instance, the Danish government proposed to make refugee women work at least 37 hours a week to continue receiving welfare benefits. Meanwhile, they continue to spread misjudged and discriminatory ideas about refugees and turn rights into privileges that need to be earned and deserved.

Indeed, it’s not a matter of European government resources, but of narratives and priorities. In December, amidst winter, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium made asylum seekers sleep rough once again, without unpredictable emergencies or mass arrivals, but clearly for structural problems returning every year.

In the meantime, in an increasing number of EU countries, migrants and asylum seekers are being treated as criminals and guinea pigs to test new and invasive control and surveillance technologies that demand more and more of their lives and their bodies. In October, the Swiss parliament agreed to allow the State Secretariat for Migration to search through asylum seekers’ mobile phones without proper consent or any suspicion of false claim, as it’s already done in Germany, Denmark, and Norway, where asylum seekers are unlawfully treated as liars until proven truthful.

Asylum seekers in Europe have faced two additional critical situations in the last year and a half: the Belarusian border crisis and the Ukrainian-Russian war.

The political stand-off between Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and the EU itself has been trapping migrants and asylum seekers amidst impenetrable and murderous frontiers for months, treating them as mere geopolitical hostages, particularly along the Poland-Belarus border. This is also due to the illegitimate state of emergency imposed by Poland preventing humanitarian actors from assisting people in need in this area.

Ultimately, the Ukrainian refugee crisis has particularly exposed a deep-rooted racist European policy that excludes and discriminates against non-European ethnicities, even in the middle of a war. As a flagrant example, up to 17 April, at least 45 black and brown migrants and asylum seekers remained trapped in the Zhuravychi immigration detention center in Ukraine, in the midst of a war zone, solely because of their irregular migration status.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, a different ethical and political compass switched on towards the thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their homes, even in states led by nationalist governments historically reluctant to welcome refugees. Denmark’s exemption of Ukrainian refugees from the controversial “jewelry law,” which still applied to asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa, and the opening of new medical clinics to cure Ukrainian refugees only are two blatant examples of this double standard.

All over Europe, the Ukraine war has even worsened the systematic discrimination experienced by non-Ukrainian asylum seekers, especially at the Serbia-Hungary border, where the climate is akin to a “migratory apartheid.”

To commemorate this year’s World Refugee Day, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor wants to recall that, while the EU Commission stands legitimately at the side of Ukrainian refugees, all other refugees are still on the move, lingering in a limbo of increasing cruelty, dereliction, and invisibility. They are routinely abused by law enforcement officials, subjected to intimidation and bare violence, physically pushed away from national territories, and prevented from seeking international protection, most of the time with total impunity.

“There is no such thing as an irregular asylum seeker. Irregulars are only the routes that Europe has for asylum seekers to arrive,” said Michela Pugliese, Euro-Med Monitor’s Migration and Asylum Researcher.

“European states should learn from the way they have reacted to the Ukrainian war this year, remembering that anyone, anywhere, can become an asylum seeker in need of protection. They should also always take into consideration people’s free choices in their own lives, starting from where to go to claim asylum and settle, instead of focusing only on shutting down their borders and toughening immigration rules, that are ineffective measures literally for all.”