The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
The report’s author, Anthony Morland, is a journalist and editor based in Paris.
Since 2019, the Mixed Migration Review has dedicated a section to chronicling alarming programmes and actions that not long ago would have been considered beyond the pale but are now often carried out in the brazen expectation that they will elicit minimal—or at least manageable—public opposition or outrage. This year’s entries again clearly demonstrate a continuing normalisation of ever more extreme actions and policies towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: although what follows is far from an exhaustive list of relevant incidents and policy measures across the world, it does offer compelling evidence, in the form of a series of snapshots, that the extreme continues to be normalised, and in some cases even enshrined in law.
While these snapshots are divided under various headings (Detention, Deportation, Pushbacks, etc) there is often an overlap between these categories, and between this section of the review and others (such as the essays and Keeping track). For the sake of concision, context has been kept to a minimum in the body text; readers are invited to explore the sourced documentation for extensive background information and additional research.
Given the global prevalence of the phenomenon and its constant evolution, it is impossible to know with any precision how many people are detained across the world because of their immigration status. Still, research conducted by the Global Detention Project offers instructive insights. Its database lists some 1,594 immigration detention centres in the Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe and Middle East regions and notes that such facilities hold tens of thousands asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, refugees, trafficking victims, torture survivors and stateless persons, including children. In the European Union alone, a lack of correct documentation leads to the detention of more than 100,000 people every year.
Adding to an extensive and harrowing catalogue of reports about the abuses faced by migrants detained in Libya, a team of UN-appointed independent human rights experts said in March that their three-year investigation had documented “numerous cases of, inter alia, arbitrary detention, murder, torture, rape, enslavement, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance.” According to their fact-finding mission, whose remit covered events going back to 2016, more than 670,000 migrants from over 41 countries were present in Libya since June last year. In the light of additional evidence of state involvement in such abuses, the fact-finding mission said that violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law as well as crimes against humanity had been committed against migrants held in facilities controlled by various Libyan state agencies. The report prominently noted that the latter received technical, logistical and monetary support from the European Union and its member states to facilitate the interception and return of migrants.
This logistical support includes intelligence supplied to the Libyan coastguard collected from drones operated by the EU’s own border and coast guard agency, Frontex, an arrangement that Human Rights Watch said points to the EU’s “complicity” in the abuse faced by migrants in Libya. The testimony of 100 migrants interviewed for the UN’s fact-finding mission describes “an abhorrent cycle of violence” that starts on entry to Libya and continues during “capture, recapture and repeated transfers to official or unofficial places of detention without recourse to judicial review.” Migrants detained in Libya are generally denied their legal rights and are subjected to deliberate medical neglect and extortion, according to a human rights NGO, which said that detainees often had to pay bribes of around $1,000 to secure their release.
Over the past two years, Algeria has reportedly extended the severe judicial measures it has long taken against foreigners involved in irregular migration from its shores across the Mediterranean to encompass its own nationals. These measures often led to long prison sentences when non-Algerians were intercepted leaving for Spain or Italy, and more lenient punishments for Algerians. But authorities have now become “visibly tougher” at two key points of departure, stepping up beach patrols and checks on vehicles, while prosecutions are stricter, regardless of nationality.
Between August 2022 and March 2023, hundreds of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers were arbitrarily arrested and detained in Sudan as police and other security services stepped up immigration control operations. Many of the arrests took place during raids on Eritreans’ homes and workplaces. The reason for their detention was often the lack of proper identification documents, residence permits or permits to leave refugee camps in the east of Sudan. Eritreans were subjected to unusually large fines of 300,000 Sudanese pounds (around $500), and those unable to pay were sent to prisons in Khartoum indefinitely, or until relatives paid the fines. This created a climate of fear among the Eritrean community in Sudan’s capital, leading them to hide in their homes and avoid venturing outside.
This year, authorities in India’s Uttar Pradesh state arrested and detained dozens of Rohingya refugees as part of a crackdown on refugees from Myanmar. Refugees in India can be held indefinitely due to an absence of legal limits on detention. In one incident, security forces fired tear gas during a protest by a group of detained refugees in Jammu and Kashmir, resulting in the death of a five-month-old baby. Despite publicly condemning the violence in Myanmar at the United Nations, India’s leadership has implemented policies that restrict the rights of refugees from Myanmar, including limiting their freedom and expelling them from the country. The ruling BJP party has been carrying out a deportation campaign since 2017, specifically targeting Rohingya refugees, resulting in the arrest and detention of thousands.
In mid-September, police in Pakistan detained hundreds of Afghan nationals in various locations, including Karachi and Islamabad. Authorities said they were conducting a crackdown on Afghans “living illegally” in the country. But many of those detained reportedly had ID cards issued by the government of Pakistan, which has been accused of racial profiling and of harassing refugees who feel it is not safe enough to return to their Taliban-controlled homeland. The arrests came shortly after clashes on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, part of which was closed for nine days. Some 3.7 million Afghans are estimated to be living in Pakistan, around half of whom are registered.
Detainees held in crowded facilities in Cambodia include many people from across Southeast Asia (including children) who had escaped from scam online employment schemes into which they had been trafficked. According to a complaint filed in May to the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights by three NGOs, the detentions violate the non-punishment principle enshrined in the UN anti-trafficking protocol and the ASEAN Trafficking Convention. In some cases, detainees were re-trafficked immediately upon their release. The complaint also cites the case of a Malaysian national who had managed to escape their traffickers, only for the police to whom they had reported their situation to call the very same traffickers, who came to collect the person. Despite having been forced by their traffickers to work in so-called “fraud factories”, where large-scale online crime (such as romance scams and crypto fraud) is conducted, many—including several hundred in Thailand—have faced prosecution on return to their home countries.
Over recent years, many thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in numerous countries in Europe have been jailed because of their alleged involvement in smuggling, even when such involvement amounts to simply holding a boat’s tiller, handling a GPS device or giving a life jacket to a fellow passenger, according to
a recent investigation. They include more than 2,500 boat drivers imprisoned in Italy since 2014; 2,200 held in Greece on charges of smuggling people or “facilitating the illegal entry” of people into the country; and 912 people convicted of facilitating immigration into the English county of Kent—the leading place of irregular arrival to the UK—between October 2019 and October 2021. Those found to have steered boats across the English Channel could risk life sentences. In several trials in Greece, Italy and the UK, convictions relied on the testimony of a single witness. In one case, a Syrian man who had agreed, in order to reduce his crossing fee, to steer a boat full of migrants from Türkiye to Italy was arrested in Greece after 18 of the passengers drowned. He was convicted of facilitating the illegal entry of 57 survivors and sentenced to 187 years in prison (although he will be eligible for parole after 12).
Italy intends to ask failed asylum seekers to pay a €5,000 deposit bond to avoid being placed in detention centres while their appeal against the asylum rejection is decided. If they cannot do that, they will be held in detention for up to 18 months. Currently, applicants are free to move around the country while their appeal is considered, giving them the opportunity to evade authorities and ignore any negative outcome of their appeal. The previous limit for detention was three months.
Security forces in Bulgaria, Hungary and Croatia were late last year reported to operate a series of secret “black sites” along their borders to “systemically detain people before illegally deporting them”. Evidence gathered by a consortium of journalists revealed the use for detention in these countries of small “cage-like structures”, dangerously hot vans and shipping containers as well as the denial of food and water. Their report suggested these sites are part of a system that is partly funded by the EU and are in close proximity to Frontex personnel.
The 104 survivors of a June shipwreck off the coast of Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula were held in “detentionlike” conditions as irregular migrants after being rescued from a tragedy that claimed some 600 lives off the coast of Pylos. Survivors from the capsized Adriana fishing vessel found themselves compelled to rest on mattresses placed directly on the ground, and their freedom to leave the location was severely restricted, as was their ability— and that of others who had been hospitalised—to meet with friends and family members who had come to visit them. The subsequent process of asylum application reportedly fell short of norms established under the Greek Asylum code. Nine Egyptians among these survivors now stand accused of smuggling offences and face life sentences if convicted, although relatives insist they too were paying passengers.
Greece’s treatment of detained migrants also came under fire in February from a coalition of 14 NGOs that reported on the use since 2020 of “physical violence— including excessive and disproportionate force and the use of electric discharge weapons—psychological torment, humiliation, denial of access to medical care and verbal aggression” in a range of holding facilities, including pre-removal detention centres. The coalition’s report contends that such use of violence in Greece was “severe and structural” and was designed to “control and intimidate detainees” and to prevent or reduce inward migration flows.
Greek authorities in Megala Therma, on the northern coast of Lesbos, arbitrarily detained unregistered newly arrived migrants in “dire” conditions, in some cases for weeks, in units of an overcrowded quarantine centre that lacked beds and in which men, women and children were housed together with no regard for standard safeguarding procedures. Migrants held in this facility are subsequently transferred to a Closed Controlled Access Centre on the island where conditions have been described as “prison-like”. Authorities allegedly restricted access to food in a bid to encourage migrants to leave.
Within the space of a month over the summer, almost 18,000 allegedly irregular migrants were apprehended in drone-assisted raids across Türkiye spearheaded by the Interior Ministry as part of efforts to reduce the number of migrants in the country amid pressure from far-right parties. With its worsening economic climate characterised by soaring inflation, migration has emerged as a highly charged political issue in Türkiye, which hosts some 3.6 million Syrians seeking sanctuary from the conflict in their own country as well as people from various states in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Consequently, minor infringements of immigration rules that previously resulted in a mere warning from police, are increasingly leading to detention and even deportation. That domestic politics played an important role in the toughening of official attitudes to migrants became especially evident in the run up to the elections in May, when there was a sharp rise in the number of arrests during an operation involving more than 33,000 personnel raiding almost 20,000 locations across the country.
Based on a three-year investigation, an extensive report into conditions at an immigration detention facility in the United Kingdom found “credible evidence” that human rights law had been breached and that staff at the centre had used racist and derogatory language towards those held there. The public enquiry also found that a “toxic culture” pervaded staff at Brook House, where people are detained prior to deportation. Recorded abuses included the use of dangerous restraint techniques and forcibly moving people when they were naked or near naked. The report called for a range of changes to be introduced into the UK immigration detention system, including a 28-day time limit. There is currently no limit to the duration of such administrative detention.
Russia’s military recruitment drive to strengthen its frontline forces in Ukraine has extended to coercing not only foreign migrant workers but also, via the mercenary Wagner Group, immigration detainees in Vladivostok. Targeted detainees were said to have been offered both the carrot of rapid Russian citizenship and the stick of deportation with a ban on returning to Russia within five years.
In Mexico, “inhumane policies” in a migrant detention centre were blamed for the deaths of almost 40 people during a fire in late March. After the blaze broke out when some detainees set their mattresses on fire to protest their planned deportation, authorities allegedly left detainees locked up with no way to escape. Video footage of the disaster showed guards walking away from the fire and making no attempt to release those in the smoke-filled cell. Pending an investigation into the fire, Mexico’s immigration agency said it was closing 33 immigration detention centres across the country. As part of the Mexican government’s strategy—carried out in collaboration with the US and Canada—to curb migration, authorities detained more than 318,000 migrants in 2022 and expelled some 16,000.
In the first eleven weeks of 2023, authorities in Algeria expelled almost 10,000 undocumented migrants— including children and women, some of them pregnant— and abandoned them in or near a desert village in a no-man’s land just across the Niger border. Witness testimony indicated that many were beaten and/or robbed of their money, phones, valuables and documents by Algerian security forces during their ordeal. While Algeria regularly deports Nigerien citizens under a 2014 bilateral readmissions agreement and takes them to a small Niger border village called Assamaka, many others, mostly people from West and Central Africa (but also from Arab or Asian countries) are deposited via unofficial convoys at the so-called “Point Zero” on the border from where they have to walk 15 kilometres to Assamaka. Most remain in the village there for lack of funds for onward transportation, with little in the way of food, water, shelter or humanitarian assistance. One leading international NGO active in Assamaka, where temperatures can reach 48 degrees celsius, said a health facility it supports there had been “overwhelmed”, with people sleeping in it wherever they could find space, even on the roof and in an area usually reserved for waste.
In July, reports—later denied by Tunis—began emerging of hundreds of Black Africans being arrested in or near the port city of Sfax in Tunisia and then being forcefully expelled without due process to a militarised desert buffer zone on the Libyan border, where little food or medical assistance was available. Those allegedly expelled included people with both regular and irregular status from a range of countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Mali, Guinea, Chad, Sudan and Senegal. Some were asylum seekers registered with UNHCR in Tunisia. They were unable to enter Libya or return to Tunisia, and many of their phones had been smashed by security forces. Dozens of people reportedly died in the no man’s land between the two borders.
For months, violent anti-migrant sentiment had been running high in Sfax—a popular departure point for Europe—(and indeed across the country) in the wake of widely reported xenophobic remarks made in February by the Tunisian president. Amid the ensuing climate of fear, which was marked by mass evictions, sackings, verbal abuse and physical attacks, hundreds of migrants from Mali, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire opted to fly home. Such human rights concerns appear to have been largely overlooked by the EU when in July it signed a €1 billion partnership with Tunisia in a bid to reduce irregular migration to the bloc. Various critics have derided the externalisation deal as “likely to exacerbate violations and abuses and perpetuate impunity” in Tunisia, just another step in the EU’s “war on migrants”, and a new pillar in the bloc’s “failed asylum architecture”. Even some EU officials and member states were against the deal. In September, Tunisia blocked five members of the European Parliament from entering the country on a planned visit whose purpose included assessing the migration deal. The same month, hundreds of migrants were arrested in the Sfax region by Tunisian police, including anti-terrorism units, in an operation ordered by the president himself.
In early September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said plans should be drawn up for the removal of all African migrants in the country. This followed violent clashes between rival groups of Eritrean nationals in Tel Aviv in which 140 people were injured. As well as calling for the immediate deportation of the “rioters” he instructed his ministers to draft plans for the “removal of all the other illegal infiltrators”, using a term frequently used in Israel to describe African irregular migrants. Some 25,000 migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, currently live in Israel. Very few are recognised as asylum seekers and even fewer as refugees. Previous government and Knesset efforts to deport migrants from Israel have been thwarted by the country’s courts.
Refugees and asylum seekers were among hundreds of Eritreans summarily expelled from Ethiopia at the end of June, according to the UN, whose human rights experts noted that such collective expulsions violated international law and, in the absence of “individual risk assessments of their exposure to human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearance”—abuses that are well documented in Eritrea when its citizens are forcibly returned—amounted to refoulement. The experts also voiced concern about “reports of continued arrests and prolonged arbitrary detention of Eritreans [in Ethiopia] for alleged violations of immigration law, without charge, without access to a lawyer and without judicial process.”
Between April and July, authorities in Kuwait deported some 700 Filipinos amid tensions over the rights of migrant workers in Kuwait, who number almost 270,000. Some had to finance the cost of their flight home themselves. Around 500 Filipinos who had sought sanctuary in a shelter run by their embassy were among those deported after a brief spell in detention.
Between April and May this year, the armed forces in Lebanon were accused of arbitrarily and summarily deporting over 1,000 Syrian nationals back to Syria, including unaccompanied children, giving no consideration to their refugee status or risk of persecution once returned. Some of those deported said they had been arrested and forcibly conscripted into the army upon their return. Others said they had been beaten and threatened when apprehended in Lebanon. Some also said they had been given no right to consult lawyers or challenge their deportation, as a group of NGOs accused the Lebanese authorities of “scapegoating refugees” for their own economic failures. In several cases, the deportees were handed over directly to Syrian authorities, whose abuses against returning migrants have been widely documented.
Pushbacks, pullbacks and other border abuses
In late 2022, a group of UN rights officials issued a report alleging that large numbers of Ethiopian migrants were being deliberately killed on a daily basis on the border separating Yemen and Saudi Arabia by security forces operating under Saudi state authority. In an apparent bid to deter migrants from crossing the border, the perpetrators were said to have deployed mortar rounds and sniper fire from Saudi territory towards individuals and groups of migrants in Yemen. Other shootings allegedly took place on Saudi territory, according to the report, which also indicated that some migrants had been tortured and raped. Saudi Arabia denied the officials’ findings of a “systematic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings, using artillery shelling and small arms fired by Saudi security forces against migrants.” Subsequent investigations and interviews conducted in June 2023 by the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) with Ethiopian returnees provided further evidence of such atrocities, with Yemen interviewees telling MMC about seeing “piles of bodies lying exposed for lengthy periods of time, often placed in shallow graves.” Coupled with data in the UN officials’ report, MMC’s research suggests that at least 794 people were killed and 1,703 injured as a result of incidents at the northern border in 2022. MMC’s investigations also pointed to the use of unmanned “sensor-triggered, or camera-activated automatic shooting systems” at the border. In late August 2023, Human Rights Watch said in an extensive report that there was evidence to suggest the killings were continuing. “Saudi border guards have used explosive weapons and shot people at close range, including women and children, in a pattern that is widespread and systematic,” the rights group added. Also in August, it was reported that the Saudi border forces behind the killing of migrants in Yemen had received training from German federal police and the US military.
On the southern border of the United States, new pushback tactics involved stringing miles of barbed wire along the US bank of the Rio Grande and a wall of buoys and underwater webbing in the middle of the river, which marks the border with Mexico. Installed in early July, the riverine barriers, which are part of a multibilliondollar effort by Texan Governor Greg Abbot to secure the border, have raised fears about the risk of drowning. In June, a pregnant woman having a miscarriage was found caught in the wire, and Texas national guards pushed back a four-year-old girl trying to get through the barrier. She later passed out from exhaustion, according to a leaked email to a superior from a state trooper, who described the national guards’ actions—which allegedly involve denying people water amid extreme heat—as “inhumane”.
At the end of last year, a network of NGOs and independent experts pointed to an “unprecedented rise in violence” at the European Union’s border, with incidents of beatings, forced undressings, torture and other abuses carried out not just by a “few bad apples” but in a context that amounts to a “rotten orchard where violence is being normalised”. Their findings, collated in an updated, 3,173-page edition of The Black Book of Pushbacks, were drawn from interviews with more than 700 people trying to reach Europe in 2021 and 2022, when coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns led to the evacuation from border areas of international organisations, meaning that border guards in many countries, in the absence of independent witnesses, felt a greater sense of impunity as they implanted “gruesome deterrence tactics” that also included the shaving of heads, dog attacks and the use of electric discharge weapons. The incidents and practices listed below indicate that the easing of the pandemic did not bring an end to harsh tactics at Europe’s borders—both external and internal—but instead point to their normalisation. One statistic in particular lends credence to the existence of such a trend: over the course of 2022, some 225,533 people were illegally pushed back from the EU’s external border, according to a tally published in March this year by a Belgian NGO which said pushbacks “form the basis of Europe’s external borders policy”.
Border officials in Italy continued to react to the arrival by sea of asylum seekers, including children, from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq by locking them belowdecks in ferries—in effect “secret prisons on private ships”— and forcibly sending them back to Greece, according to a human rights NGO. On the voyage to Greece from the Italian ports of Venice, Ancona, Bari and Brindisi—which, depending on the route, can take well over 24 hours— some of the unofficial detainees were, unbeknownst to the vessel’s fee-paying passengers above, reportedly handcuffed to fixed furniture and thus unable to move, while others were confined to very small rooms. Such secret and illegal pushbacks reportedly involved hundreds of people within the space of 12 months, despite a 2014 European Court of Human Rights ruling that such transfers were unlawful because they denied people their right to claim protection upon arrival in Italy. According to the human rights NGO, Italy’s pushbacks of asylum seekers to Greece “are not isolated episodes, [but] rather the result of a precise political strategy”.
Greece faced renewed pushback allegations of its own in May, when the New York Times published video footage that showed masked men on the island of Lesbos forcing a dozen asylum-seekers, including young children, onto a small raft and abandoning them at sea. This prompted the European Commission to urge Athens to open a full investigation into the incident and to warn it might take “formal steps” against Greece, a year after the bloc’s commissioner for home affairs had told Greek authorities “there is no place for illegal deportations”. The investigation is set to be carried out by an independent monitoring authority established last year as a condition of EU funding for Greek coast guard operations.
Gendarmes in France stand accused of including unaccompanied children among the migrants pushed back to the Italy border town of Ventimiglia, in violation of existing regulations, because of lack of space in French reception centres. At the French border post in the Riviera resort of Menton, minors are frequently detained overnight with unrelated adults before being pushed back—at a rate of “dozens” per month—to Italy, often without confiscated possessions, such as documents and phones being returned to them and in violation of French and international law.
In April, lawmakers in Lithuania took normalisation to its logical conclusion when they legalised the common practice of turning away irregular migrants from the country’s borders by adopting—with an overwhelming majority—amendments on the Law on the State Border and Protection. Such pushbacks had previously been authorised in 2021 under a minister’s order and a subsequent government resolution. The interior ministry stated the new amendments were aimed at countering the instrumentalisation of migration by Belarus and to put in place additional safeguards for vulnerable people. But human rights activists warned that by “forcibly returning refugees and migrants to places where they face a risk of torture and other ill-treatment, the [Lithuanian] government is trampling on their rights and on Lithuania’s own international obligations” and was thus giving “a green light to torture”. In early September, the EU Commission defended the new border polices enacted by Lithuania and neighbouring Latvia (whose parliament has approved similar amendments, to the consternation of UNHCR), with one official saying the two countries were “doing their best to protect the EU border.”
Further light was shed this year on pushbacks to Bosnia and Herzegovina that have long been carried out— despite official denials—by police in Croatia. According to an extensive report about the “routine brutality towards migrants and asylum seekers” on the border between the two countries, these forced returns occur without asylum requests or protection needs being assessed and include unaccompanied minors and families with young children. The report said police on the border frequently steal crucial possessions such as mobile phones, money and ID documents and force refugees and migrants into Bosnia and Herzegovina not at official crossing points but at other locations along the border, where some expulsees have to wade across rivers or navigate dense forests with no idea where the nearest town is. No steps are taken to arrange the reception of those pushed back by authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the report said.
Over recent years Malta has been repeatedly criticised for pushing back migrants from its waters or not responding to their distress calls, to the point of being accused in a complaint filed to the International Criminal Court of having committed crimes against humanity. Such opprobrium continued in 2023. In May, for example, four NGOs involved in search and rescue (SAR) operations on the Mediterranean accused Malta of coordinating the “criminal mass pushback by proxy” of 500 migrants aboard a vessel in distress in its SAR zone who were forcibly returned 330 kilometres to eastern Libya, where they were immediately imprisoned. They included nationals of Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the first six months of 2023, more than 8,700 people were returned to Libya after being intercepted by its EU-funded coast guard. Malta’s SAR zone is also reported to be the theatre of pullbacks carried out by forces acting under the umbrella of the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar, whose institutions in eastern Libya operate in rivalry to the UN-recognised government in Tripoli. These forces, known as the Tareq Bin Zeyad (TBZ) brigade, have also been implicated (since 2021) in the deportation by truck of migrants in southwestern Libya to Niger, as well as in a “catalogue of horrors”, such as unlawful killings, torture and other war crimes allegedly committed in Libya. In one incident in July of this year, 250 people aboard a fishing vessel that had run out of fuel in the Maltese SAR after departing from Libya were transferred to a vessel operated by TBZ and taken to Benghazi in eastern Libya, where they were robbed and detained. A similar incident involving 300 migrants occurred on 26 July. In August, also in the Maltese SAR zone, the TBZ reportedly intercepted a boat carrying 110 migrants who had departed from Lebanon and detained them in Benghazi, and then released most of them only after ransoms were paid.
Neglecting and thwarting maritime search and rescue
As noted above, 2023 brought renewed and widespread criticism of the EU and its member states in relation to maritime search and rescue. In late August, after three civilian SAR ships were kept from operating at sea by authorities in Italy acting under new legal powers (see below), 56 NGOs issued a joint statement calling on “European states to stop obstructing and hindering civil search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.” The signatories noted that on 60 occasions since December 2022 Italian officials assigned unnecessarily distant ports for civilian SAR vessels to disembark the migrants they had rescued. Rather than effectively deterring people from attempting to cross the Mediterranean, policies such as these “result in more suffering and more deaths,” the statement said, pointing to the June loss of 600 lives in the shipwreck off the coast of Greece as an example of “preventable deaths” that happen “year in and year out” on the Mediterranean. Between January and mid-September 2023, more than 2,000 of the 157,000 people who attempted the Central Mediterranean Route died or went missing, considerably more than last year’s 12-month total of 1,417 (among 160,00 attempted crossings).
Among these fatalities were 94 (mainly Afghan) migrants, including 35 children, who died close to the Italian coast near the Calabrian port of Crotone when the overcrowded wooden pleasure boat they were aboard sank in February. In the furore that followed the tragedy, Italian authorities and Frontex—which had spotted the vessel six hours before wreck—traded blame for the failure to respond quickly and allegedly tried to conceal exactly what they knew as the disaster unfolded.
Noting that tardy responses to emergencies at sea often had fatal consequences, one migration expert concluded in a May op-ed that delaying SAR is not so much a European policy failure as a “deliberate, cruel strategy” honed over the last decade to prevent arrivals while accelerating interceptions to Libya “no matter the cost”. The author noted that Italy and Malta “continue to leave vast stretches of the sea unattended” and that the maritime authorities of European states often withhold information about vessels in distress from nearby civilian SAR operators. A similar note was sounded by an SAR coordination platform, which asserted in March that non-assistance had become “a routine part of a suite of deadly measures aimed at reducing arrivals in Malta.” In 2022, according to the platform, authorities in Malta ignored more than 20,000 people in distress. After the deadly wreck of the Adriana off the coast of Pylos in June (see above), Greek authorities were accused of first delaying their response to an alert issued by Frontex, then of causing the wreck by towing the fishing boat, and later of covering up their alleged role in the disaster. The Adriana disaster also prompted the EU’s ombudsman to launch an investigation into Frontex’s role in the incident and in SAR operations in general. In the context of Libyan pullbacks (see above), Human Rights Watch said last December that “Frontex’s rhetoric around saving lives remains tragically empty as long as the border agency doesn’t use the technology and information at its disposal to ensure that people are rescued promptly and can disembark at safe ports”.
The criminalisation of migration advocacy in Greece has also compromised maritime safety, according to NGOs there, as illustrated by the case of one activist facing charges related to people smuggling that followed his documentation of arrivals from Türkiye. The activist in question reported such arrivals to police in a bid to pre-empt their being pushed back or expelled. Meanwhile, a group of 24 aid workers who were arrested in 2018 while helping migrants arriving on Greece’s shoreline continue to be investigated for allegedly aiding smuggling networks, money laundering and belonging to a criminal organisation, charges that could lead to jail terms of up to 20 years.
It is not just European states that impede the work of civilian SAR efforts on the Mediterranean: the Libyan coastguard does so too, even beyond Libya’s 24-mile patrol zone. For example, in March, a Libyan coastguard vessel first fired warning shots at the NGO-run Ocean Viking as it attempted to rescue people aboard a rubber boat 37 miles off Libya’s coast and then took the dozens of migrants aboard back to Libya. A similar incident, allegedly involving a vessel the EU had just donated to the Libyan coastguard, took place in international waters in July.
Other legislative, judicial and policy developments
The Illegal Migration Act came into force in the United Kingdom in July, introducing another raft of measures aimed at reducing the numbers of people reaching the country aboard small boats via the English Channel, people whom Home Secretary Suella Braverman has said were “criminals [who] don’t have a right to be here.” The new law provides for the detention and deportation, either to Rwanda or another safe country, of asylum seekers arriving in the UK illegally—defined under existing legislation as entering via non-regular pathways—and the abolition of their right to claim asylum in the UK. Minors are not exempt from the detention provisions, on the ground that doing so would incentivise people to bring their children when they cross the Channel. The act also renders inadmissible most claims—however compelling— for protection and those related to human rights, including in the case of victims of trafficking and modern slavery, and introduces new restrictions on immigration bail. The law’s many critics have pointed out that in the absence of “safe and legal routes” for people seeking asylum in the UK, the act effectively abrogates the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and will have “profound consequences for people in need of international protection”. Ahead of the law’s enactment, the Council of Europe warned the UK government that it constituted a significant step backwards in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery.
Earlier in the year, the UK’s immigration minister said the government’s efforts to “suffuse our entire system with deterrents” would entail providing asylum seekers with accommodation that met “basic living needs, and nothing more.” A little later, it was announced that up to 500 asylum seekers would be housed on a three-storey barge built to accommodate half that number, prompting concerns about overcrowding, fire safety and sanitation. At the time of writing, the barge stood empty, following the discovery in its water system of a deadly strain of legionella. In September, the same minister faced renewed scorn when he announced the creation of a dedicated task force and tougher sentences to ensure that “crooked” lawyers found to be “coaching” migrants how to abuse the UK’s immigration system through fraud would be prosecuted, with the possibility upon conviction of sentences up to life imprisonment.
In January, legislators in Italy approved a new migration decree that greatly restricts the work of NGOs conducting search and rescue operations on the Mediterranean. Among other provisions, the law’s code of conduct bans such NGOs from carrying out multiple rescues on the same voyage, obliging them instead to immediately head to an often very distant designated Italian port, regardless of whether other vessels are in distress nearby. Failure to comply could lead to fines of up to €50,000 and the seizure of rescue ships—a penalty that has already been imposed on at least one civilian SAR vessel. SAR NGOs must now also collect biodata from those they rescue and share it with authorities. The decree’s measures appear to be incompatible with a range of international laws and have given rise to fears of a rise in maritime fatalities. The law elicited widespread condemnation and has been variously described as “a new low in [Italy’s] strategy of smearing and criminalizing nongovernmental organizations saving lives at sea”, “simply unacceptable” and “ineffective” as a deterrent to irregular migration. Such criminalisation is fairly common across the EU: according to a report published in March, more than 100 people in the bloc faced criminal or administrative proceedings in 2022 for acts of solidarity with migrants.
In May, Italy passed the so-called Cutro decree, a package of measures designed to curb irregular migration by introducing a range of restrictions to Italy’s protection regime. Derided as “inhumane”, the new law reduces access to fair asylum procedures and limits freedom of movement, while increasing the permitted duration of pre-deportation detention. The government introduced additional measures in September, after some 10,000 migrants reached the island of Lampedusa. These also had an impact on the permissible duration of detention— in centres described as “black holes” by rights activists— as well as on the deportation of people found to have no right to be in Italy.
In June, Governor Greg Abbot of the US state of Texas signed into law a package of measures designed to “hold the line and protect Texans from the record level of illegal migration, weapons and deadly drugs pouring into Texas.” The measures expand US Border Patrol agents’ powers of arrest and search and seizure at the border with Mexico. Abbot’s original plans to allow civilians to serve in a border protection unit with law-enforcement powers were rebuffed by state legislators in the wake of fears they could lead to state-sponsored vigilantism. In December 2022, Abbot sparked outrage when he called for NGOs to be investigated for “unlawfully orchestrating” irregular crossings of the US-Texas border without offering any evidence that any non-profits were engaged in such activities. Meanwhile, in Florida, Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed a stringent new law relating to unauthorised migrants. Among other measures, the law makes it a felony to transport into the state people who entered the US without authorisation, requires some hospitals to query the immigration and citizen status of their patients and imposes fines and possible jail time on undocumented migrants who secure employment having provided false documents.
The government of Chile took steps this year to expedite expulsions of irregular migrants, expand the criteria for deportation, and criminalise the irregular entry of those ineligible to claim asylum or who transited through safe countries, with prison sentences and fines imposed on offenders. The changes appear to violate existing refugee legislation and fall foul of Chile’s international obligations, including under the Refugee Convention.
In some cases, it is the inaction of state agents, rather than their policies or operations, that facilitates the abuse of migrants and refugees by non-state actors. In Cyprus, for example, police reportedly demonstrated a “shocking failure” to respond as a racist mob armed with Molotov cocktails went on the rampage in the coastal city of Limassol in early September, targeting people they deemed to be of the wrong skin colour. Some 200 rioters dressed in black took to the streets chanting “Cyprus is Greek” and “We’ll start with the blacks first and then police.” Several business premises were destroyed. Media coverage suggested that while there was a significant police presence in the town on the night in question, officers were deployed “in all the wrong places” and did not prevent protestors from attacking migrants. Similar violence had broken out a week earlier in the town of Chloraka. One rights activist later suggested that the rioters had been emboldened by a decade of the Cypriot government’s anti-migrant rhetoric and tolerance of racist behaviour.