The desperate people who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea paid huge sums of money to reach Europe, while they could have afford air journeys to escape conflict and persecution — only if they were allowed to.
Before he died in 2017, Hans Rosling, the famous physician and statistician, often questioned why so many refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe were drowning.
In 2014, more than 3,000 of them died. Many more perished in the following years. As pictures of dead children like Aylan Kurdi surfaced, pressure mounted on governments in the Europe Union to do something.
The EU’s response was to call for more policing and to send out the coast guard to stop human traffickers. They coordinated with countries such as Libya, from where the refugees were coming, so they could be stopped even before embarking on the perilous boat ride.
Rosling was a man of numbers and facts. He researched and later wrote in his book Factfulness, that people weren’t dying only because of greedy traffickers — the tragedy was a result of stifling European regulations.
Refugees took sea journeys from Libya and Turkey on rickety inflatable boats because that mode of transportation was cheap.
For human traffickers, expensive boats such as fishing vessels, which can withstand high tides, were a bad investment because the authorities confiscated them. It was more profitable to have shoddy watercrafts for one-way rides.
Many desperate people fleeing conflicts, persecution and poverty in Syria, Congo, South Sudan and elsewhere pay thousands of dollars to make the dangerous journey, while they could easily buy airline tickets.
So why don't they fly?
A gross miscarriage
The migration issue became a political headache for Western Europe in the early 1990s.
Thousands of asylum seekers from places such as Albania and Ukraine were trying to reach Paris, Frankfurt and London after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of hostilities in Yugoslavia.
The EU began enforcing visa requirements in addition to what are known as Carrier Sanctions, measures that allowed governments to penalise airlines if they ferried a passenger without proper documentation.
This resulted in a drastic drop in asylum applications at European airports. Since then, additional requirements have made it even more difficult for people to reach a place of refuge by air.
“These deaths of the asylum seekers during migration are a direct consequence of carrier sanctions,” Edward Hasbrouck, travel expert and author of The Practical Nomad, told TRT World.
“Sanctions imposed by governments on airlines for transporting unsuccessful asylum seekers are killing thousands of people a year directly around the world.”
Hasbrouck, a US-based advocate of easier air travel, has been writing for years about how governments have put in place multiple checks to stop the flow of legitimate asylum seekers.
As per the law, a person seeking asylum must be present in the country of refuge — for instance a Syrian must first reach Germany before he can make an asylum claim.
But getting visas is difficult for many of these people as foreign embassies in their countries are poorly staffed and the rejection rate is high.
“Most European countries will not issue tourist, business or other visas to individuals if they believe the actual reason for the visit is to seek asylum,” Pal Nesse, a senior advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council, told TRT World.
“One may reasonably argue this severely undermines the right to seek asylum in accordance with the Refugee Convention,” he said, referring to the international agreement ratified by 145 states that says refugees cannot be returned to a country where they face serious threats.
The Geneva Convention allows an asylum seeker to board a commercial flight even without a visa. But airlines face the risk of paying a fine if that person’s application is rejected and he has to be flown back.
According to figures gathered by one researcher, airlines in Germany paid fines of $3 million in 2014.
As a result, 90 percent of migrants who have reached countries such as Greece, Italy and Australia, have either taken sea journeys or flights using forged documents.
Politicians in the US, Europe and Australia have been alarmed by the rising number of refugees trying to cross their borders.
Between 2014 and 2018, more than 1.8 million refugees travelled to Europe across the Mediterranean, according to the UN Human Rights Commission.
More than 17,800 perished or went missing during the journey. Since 2000, around 30,000 refugees have died at EU borders, mostly by drowning.
But the number of refugees arriving in Europe has substantially dropped since its peak in 2015, when more than a million people, most of them escaping civil war in Syria and Afghanistan, landed in Italy, Greece and Spain. From there, they seek asylum in different European countries.
The EU is trying to address the issue by introducing a humanitarian visa regime, which will allow people to apply for refugee status in their own countries, Pier Antonio Panzeri, Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights at the European Parliament, told TRT World in an emailed response.
“The European Parliament last December asked the European Commission to present, by 31 March 2019, a legislative proposal establishing a European humanitarian visa,” he said.
If this goes through, refugees can be issued visas in their own countries.
“The assessment of their application will not entail a full status-determining process,” Panzeri said, referring to a lengthy procedure where an applicant has to go through series of interviews.
But they will be subject to background checks to ensure they are not a security threat, he said.
“We did our part, what we thought was right. Now it is up to the Commission to provide us with an answer as soon as possible.”
It’s not that the governments in rich countries have altogether abandoned refugees.
Ever year the UNHCR prepares a list of people from countries such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar, many of them living in camps, who it wants to resettle in developed countries.
In 2018, it helped find homes for more than 50,000 people, with most of them going to the United States. Only a handful of countries participate in its programme.
“In general, in the Global North, there is high level of support for resettlement of refugees but at the same time a reluctance to admit spontaneous asylum seekers into state territory,” Nikolas Feith Tan, PhD fellow at Aarhus University and the Danish Institute of Human Rights, told TRT World.
“Australia, for example, has a very tough, even extreme, approach to asylum seekers but a relatively generous resettlement policy,” he said.
Experts doubt if things are going to change for asylum seekers or if humanitarian visas can ease their problems.
Since 9/11, the governments in the US and EU have internationalised their borders by enlisting security staff at transit airports to screen passengers coming to their countries.
“They make airlines share reservation details, run extensive checks and decide who gets to board the flight,” said Hasbrouck.
The need for a visa means that an asylum seeker in a troubled place has to first reach a foreign consulate.
“Foreign embassies and airports are closely watched by local police. If someone comes to the embassy seeking asylum and isn’t immediately given sanctuary then he can be subject to additional persecution,” said Hasbrouck.
However, Panzeri said it’s still worth a try.
“I do not deny that in certain war-torn countries, it is difficult for citizens to get to the embassies of European countries and apply for a humanitarian visa,” he said.
“But this new system nevertheless provides a chance to those who would otherwise follow the alternative route: a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, feeding the illicit profits of people smugglers.”