credit SOS Mediteranee

This is the Dawning of the The Age of “The Aquarius”

The story of the MS Aquarius and its 627 passengers is becoming the story of international migration today — and it is a story of wealthy countries turning their backs on vulnerable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

On June 9, Italy refused to grant entry to the MS Aquarius, an NGO rescue ship operated by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders. Nearby Malta also refused to grant entry, causing the two governments to snipe at each other over social media as to who should take responsibility. After the Eastern Mediterranean route to Greece was largely cut off with the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, many migrants have opted to cross from Libya, placing the burden heavily on Italy to process and care for the asylum seekers who come over. With the formation of a new populist coalition government in Italy between the anti-immigrant and anti-EU parties of the 5-Star Movement and the Northern League, the Aquarius offered the first opportunity for the Italian to push back on its de facto role of welcome mat for the EU.

That left 629 migrants stuck at sea, including some who had been rescued by Italian Coast Guard ships and then transferred to the Aquarius. After days of bickering, Spain ultimately agreed to allow the ship to dock at Valencia, which still left the ship at sea for several days. To help ease the logistical problems, France also agreed to take in some of the asylum seekers aboard the Aquarius while it was enroute to Spain.

The agreement between Spain and France was a rare show of unity on an issue that continues to polarize politics throughout the EU. But it also illustrates how anti-immigrant sentiment has captured the EU.

Some of the migrants aboard the Aquarius are certainly economic migrants, but initial processing in both France and Spain revealed that many were likely legitimate asylum seekers who have the legal right to seek asylum. But rather than search for real solutions, politician frame these journeys as illegal immigration, the NGO rescue ships who help them as human traffickers, and wash their hands of responsibility, even as they potential make the situation facing these refugees back home worse.

On the other side of the world, similar drama is unfolding along the US-Mexico border.

Decades of political and economic instability has led to several countries in Central America mired in violence, generally between armed gangs and the government. The violence has reached such a level that starting in 2014, the number of people from countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala seeking asylum along the southern US border drastically increased. With the election of President Trump and his anti-immigrant stance, these asylum seekers are now being caught between international legal obligations regarding asylum and US politics.

Starting in April, the Trump administration launched a “zero tolerance” policy regarding those crossing the border. Those who do not cross at a designated port of entry are now being prosecuted for improper entry, a federal misdemeanor under US law, regardless of circumstances. Because children cannot be detained in the same facilities as their parents while they undergo legal prosecution, thousands of children are being separated from their families. Many of these children are only separated for a few hours, but the increase in prosecutions means that at least 2,300 children have been sent to their own detention facilities, where the current average stay is around two months.

The issue of family separation at the border has renewed the immigration debate in the US. While the administration claims it is just following existing laws, recent reports highlight that the policy is actually designed to be a punitive measure aimed at dissuading people from seeking asylum in the US. Attorney General Jeff Sessions further limited the ability of Central Americans to seek asylum by overruling existing immigration court rulings and deciding that gang violence does not constitute a valid grounds for asylum. Thus, many who are currently seeking asylum along the border or within US courts now face deportation to their home countries, even in the face of likely death if they return.

Much like in Europe, these policies serve as a knee-jerk reaction to anti-immigrant sentiments rather than real solutions to the problems at hand. Seeking asylum is a legal right, and in this case there are good reasons to classify these migrants as refugees fleeing armed conflict rather than as asylum seekers. The same could be said for Venezuelans, who are seeking asylum in the US in record numbers while also flooding neighboring countries such as Colombia and Brazil. But instead of engaging with the issues causing people to flee, the US is merely turning them away and shutting the door behind them.

The number of displaced people around the world – including refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs – hit record highs in 2017 with 68.5 million people displaced.

These numbers are largely fueled by the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, along with new and growing crises in Venezuela, Myanmar and the DRC. But as the need for humanitarian action increases, governments around the world are increasingly clamping down on refugee resettlement and asylum claims. 

UNHCR estimates that an average of 44,000 people were forcibly displaced each day in 2017. It is the culmination of a trend that started in 2012. In that six year span, there has been a 235% increase in the number of people forcibly displaced around the world, from 29.1 million in 2012 to the 68.5 million reported by UNHCR this week. Yet rather than address the root causes of this displacement, or help those who cannot return homes, governments are enacting stricter refugee and asylum policies to block aid to those who need it most.

The EU and US are not alone in this attitude. From mass deportations of Afghans from Pakistan and the deportation of Rohingya refugees from India and Bangladesh, to Australia’s harsh offshore detention policies and dwindling humanitarian resources for existing refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East, the world as a whole is turning its back.

But again, for the sixth year in a row, forced displacement is at an all-time high. It is clear that the current trend towards criminalizing asylum seeking and turning refugees away at the border does nothing to quell the numbers of those who need help. Until the root causes are addressed, political will should be focused on helping refugees and asylum seekers find safety.