Fleeing danger, hitting walls

Joseph Cassar SJ

'Whereas European asylum policies may seem fair for those who are already within a State, physical barriers such as the Mediterranean Sea, disputes between coastal States over the responsibility to rescue migrants in distress on the high seas, and agreements with neighbouring third countries to delegate screening and protection responsibilities away from Europe’s external boarders led to human rights violations, incredible suffering and loss of life.' 

This statement was made by Fr Joseph Cassar SJ, during his contribution as panel speaker during an event called Wenn Flucht auf Mauern stößt (Fleeing from one’s country and hitting walls), held in Mannheim, Germany, on Friday 18 May. The panel discussion intended to identify obstacles to refugee protection in Europe arising from misconceptions and misinformation, to highlight the human dignity of every migrant irrespective of one’s legal status and to invite States and Churches to adopt positive attitudes and responses.

Hannes Stegemann, Special Advisor on West Africa at Caritas International, gave the keynote speech. He said that while most West African migrants reaching Europe came for employment purposes rather than for protection, rising instability in the region was a major concern and, together with the worsening food situation in the Sahel, had led to the forced displacement of a few hundred thousand people in neighbouring countries. 

The recent Tuareg takeover in Northern Mali as well as the heightened subversion by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria were not unrelated to the downfall of Gaddafi in Libya and to the fact that substantial quantities of arms had landed in militants’ hands as an indirect result of the Libyan conflict. 

He said that Europe had made itself practically inaccessible to Africans, forcing several to use the far costlier and much more dangerous irregular means of access. On the other hand, Mr Stegemann pointed out that African migrants were the chief agents of development across the continent, contributing as many as three times as much in remittances to their countries of origin as wealthy countries provide in development aid.

During his delivery, Fr Cassar also said that asylum seekers who needed protection in Europe could not avail themselves for the most part of legal means to gain access to territory. He said that continuing south-north migration across the Mediterranean could be largely traced back to enduring situations in Somalia and Eritrea among others. 

He added that it was a shame that while several naval and airborne military assets were patrolling the seas and skies to the north of Libya during the 2011 uprising, both NATO and EU Member States had continued to prioritise external boarder control over the rescue of boat migrants in distress. 

He expressed the desire that Christian Churches in Europe would be less ambiguous in defending the lives of refugees and migrants at risk and in ensuring respect for their dignity in European societies.

Also on the panel were Christopher Hein of the Italian Refugee Council, Rheinland-Pfalz Green MP Anne Spiegel, and Guinean community worker  Abdilahi Sila. 

Katholikentag is a 5-day festival type of gathering of German-speaking Catholics held every 2-4 years. Some 60,000 people are estimated to have visited Katholikentag 2012.

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