Over the Mediterranean into Europe

Italian relief workers save a child from drowning on Lampedusa Island in Italy. Photograph: UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta.

Italian relief workers save a child from drowning on Lampedusa Island in Italy. Photograph: UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta.

Researcher Anitta Kynsilehto studies undocumented mobilities. Photograph: Jonne Renvall.

Researcher Anitta Kynsilehto studies undocumented mobilities. Photograph: Jonne Renvall.

According to researcher Anitta Kynsilehto, the only way to help the refugees in the Mediterranean is providing them legal ways of entering EU countries.

“People are well aware of the risks entailed in crossing the Mediterranean by boat. What is outrageous is that they are willing to try regardless, even several times,” Kynsilehto says.

In Kynsilehto’s opinion, the military operation the EU is planning against Libya would not solve anything.

“The very idea of sending the army to the coast of another country, possibly also with an authorisation to land, is warmongering. It could only be construed as an attack and would not protect the people. The argument is that this kind of a military operation would solve the irregular immigration issue. However, the decision-makers would only face a bigger chaos afterwards.”

The European Commission has proposed that the traffickers’ vessels should be destroyed and the Frontex Joint Operation Triton budget should be tripled. The EU argues that this would stop the human traffickers.

However, other suggestions to alleviate the problem have also been made. One of them is the establishment of reception centres in Africa so that the displaced people would not have to embark on an unsheltered sea voyage. Humanitarian visas issued by the EU and raising refugee quotas have also been proposed.

“Setting up reception centres would mean outsourcing the EU’s asylum practices, which various organisations have already been criticising for several years,” Kynsilehto remarks.

Tunisia, the most likely candidate for such centres, has already refused taking on this task. In 2011, Tunisia received hundreds of thousands of refugees who were fleeing the war in Libya, many of whom are still in the country.

“The only way to exert any influence on the situation is to open legal ways to enter the European Union, including humanitarian visas and proper increases in refugee quotas.”

Experiences made a researcher

Kynsilehto defended her doctoral dissertation in 2011. At the University of Tampere, she has worked at the Institute for Advanced Social Research (IASR), the Tampere Peace Research Institute (Tapri) and the Research Centre for Knowledge, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (TaSTI) on research projects investigating mobility, corporeality and politics. She is currently

working as a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, and next autumn she will start a three-year Academy of Finland research fellowship at the University of Tampere. The title of her new research project is Everyday politics of solidarity: Undocumented mobilities in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Kynsilehto’s passion and interest in migrants’ lives was already kindled during her school years in Rovaniemi. There was an asylum seekers’ reception centre in the same neighbourhood, and Kynsilehto heard about the people’s stories. A gap year after the upper secondary school took her to Marseille, France, where she befriended several people from Africa.

“In Marseille, living undocumented as a migrant or a refugee was everyday life for many of the people I got to know. That is why I wanted to focus my education and professional activities on these issues.”

Information but no political will

Out in the field, Kynsilehto often walks with one foot in praxis and the other in research. Since 2005, she has been active in the Migration and Asylum working group of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), since 2012 as a member of the Network’s executive committee. EMHRN focuses on advocacy work aimed at informing people and influencing decision-makers. At the same time, it offers a researcher good connections to organisations and people.

On the coast of Turkey in 2013, Kynsilehto interviewed people who had left Syria and Eritrea and were likely to gain legal refugee status – if they could first manage to make their way to Europe.

“They suggested I should come along on the boat so that I would see how the officials controlling the Greek border treated them. The border guards broke the boats and pushed people back to Turkey. The amount of violence along the border is quite appalling. Pregnant women are beaten, and children’s food is thrown in the sea. Such things happen, and our organisation, among others, reports on them. Its latest report was published about a year ago. It is not that we do not know what is happening; it is a question of political will and how that will can be changed.”

The Middle East and Africa are boiling

Refugees who cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe have been headline news for quite some time, but no significant improvements have been made in the situation. When the humanitarian catastrophe close to Lampedusa Island in October 2013 momentarily caught the attention of Europe, Italy started its own Mare Nostrum operation in order to save people from drowning.

“The Italian coast is just one point of entry in the Mediterranean. It is impossible to get accurate numbers of the people trying to cross it. Nobody counts the people who are pushed back at the Turkish and Greek borders. The NGOs try to report as best they can, and from time to time these events make headlines,” Kynsilehto explains.

Crossing the Mediterranean is a desperate undertaking, for example for many Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries.

“After having received refugees for many years, Jordan is at the limits of what it can bear. A new influx of refugees is coming from Iraq – people who have tried to go back home once already. The lack of water is an alarming problem that aggravates the situation further.”

Distressed people can also be found in many African countries. Burundi is on the brink of civil war; Nigerians fear Boko Haram and the violence caused by elections; and the conflict in the northern parts of Mali has escalated.

For example in Morocco, the job of journalists has become much more difficult because the country has taken it upon itself to keep people away from the European border. The pressure the EU exerts over Morocco is so intense that journalists are not welcome in the country to witness what is happening.

“There are a lot of potential refugees because people cannot live where they were born.”

People are abused on the way

There are many names for people who attempt to come to a safe life in Europe but have no identification documents. Kynsilehto uses the term ‘undocumented’, but she puts the term in quotation marks.

Many people have no personal identity papers, but not because they have destroyed them.

“It is very likely that people get robbed on the way, for example in the Sahara desert. After losing their papers, people may have other ways to access their documents. It may be possible to receive copies of the documents by e-mail or through family members, if there are any, who can provide a birth certificate. However, not everyone can get a passport, and not all births are registered in official registers. In many cases, people who must leave their home countries because of political persecution by the state are not issued a passport or other travel documents that would allow identification,” Kynsilehto says.

On the border between Greece and Turkey, the border guards have been known to throw personal documents into the sea. Pressure from the EU has increased the inhuman treatment of the refugees: it has been said that the Greek border is “leaking”, which has led the Greek government to boost border controls.

“The new government of Greece has stated that it will discontinue its systematic custody practices and that it is thinking of alternative ways to receive undocumented people. I do not have updated information on their border control practices.”

In 2013, Kynsilehto did not get on board the boat because no one’s safety can be guaranteed at sea.

Text: Taina Repo

A report from the border of Greece and Turkey by FIDH – Migreurop – EMHRN