VATICAN CITY -- English lacks the words to describe what is happening on some of Europe’s most far-flung isles.
In the Canary Islands, closer to the African coast and Morocco than to mainland Spain, boatloads of Africans literally crash on to shore or die trying to get there nearly every day in the summer months. In the Canaries, an assortment of traditional African fishing boats, makeshift dinghies and sometimes little more than leaking flat-bottomed skiffs are known by colorful names such as “cayucas,” “pateras,” or, more alarmingly, “barcos negreros” -- slave boats. So far this year, over 24,000 migrants have made it to the Canary Islands. Nearly 6,000 arrived during the month of August alone. Compare that with 2005, when for the whole year just over 4,700 migrants made their way safely across the seas. This year, according to modest estimates, about 1000 people have died trying to make the voyage. In Italy, where over 11,000 migrants have reached the southernmost island of Lampedusa this year, the ramshackle vessels are known as “carrette della morte.” Death boats. But in both places, little information filters through to the public, and national policy remains somewhat of a mystery. No access “When this started happening, at first the authorities sought us out to help the people who were arriving,” said Rosa Martín, secretary general of Caritas Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands. “In February, we provided clothing, blankets and other basic items, but since then we’ve been largely shut out of the process,” she explained. Ms. Martín said that the Spanish Red Cross alone had been given access to the migrants landing in the Canary Islands and other major points of entry. The migrants are held in temporary detention centers, and there the Red Cross will give people an initial check-up and follow-up care as necessary. People are allowed to be detained at the centers for a maximum of 40 days, after which by law the migrants are transferred to other locations. “We believe we aren’t given access because the authorities do not want us to see just what is happening in these detention centers,” Ms. Martín said. “During the 40 days that migrants stay in the center on Tenerife, we never see any of them. We don’t know where they come from, how many of them there are, or what happens to them once they leave here,” Ms. Martín said. She said some migrants were re-patriated, while the vast majority were simply issued expulsion papers but transferred randomly to big cities on the mainland. Ms. Martín continued, “How do you enforce expulsions if an individual assessment of each case is not guaranteed?” No Clear Policy María Segurado, head of legal affairs at Caritas Spain, said that it is at this point that the national and local Caritas organisations can intervene to help foreign migrants, who are basically left to fend for themselves on the streets. But it is not enough to just help these people once they are abandoned to their fate. “We are tired of pushing for some sort of decision to be made. We are tired of hearing constant talk with nothing being done,” she said, referring to the months-long impasse among European nations over how to tackle the problem. “We need to come up with a fair and just solution. We know, for example, that some of these migrants have been randomly sent back to Morocco, but Spain or other countries can’t be sending people there without any regard to where they come from or what might happen to them wherever they may end up,” Ms. Segurado said. “We’ve all seen the reports, sometimes the Moroccan authorities just leave the people in the desert to die,” she said. In other cases, such as Italy’s forcibly re-patriating migrants to Libya, there is an obvious disregard for people’s human rights when you send them back to countries which are considered patent human rights abusers. Respecting Human Rights Peter Verhaeghe, Migration Officer at Caritas Europa in Brussels, underlined the urgent need for clear policy that protects migrants and their rights. “We have to look at the root causes of migration, Mr. Verhaeghe said. “Migrants don’t choose to leave, in fact, often extreme poverty or extreme human rights abuses in their home countries force them to seek a better life elsewhere,” he said. “We in the so-called developed world in Europe have to look for ways to solve the root problem, whether it be through investing in poverty eradication in impoverished countries or putting pressure on governments to respect the rights of their people,” Mr. Verhaeghe said. Caritas Europa is calling upon member states to ratify the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, which just 34 countries have ratified. Only two of those are European: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey. Caritas Europa firmly advocates for the full respect of human dignity and human rights, including in situations of forced return. It is therefore closely monitoring and participating in the ongoing debate within the EU on a proposal for a directive on common standards for the return of irregularly residing third country nationals. Caritas Europa also holds that European policy must come to reflect today’s reality. Europe as an aging population needs immigrant labor, and migrants will unavoidably come to fill that gap. Developing a policy that enables this to happen legally will guarantee protection for migrant workers, and economic benefits for all. Caritas Europa is also pushing for member states to make the regularisation of undocumented workers an element of a comprehensive European policy on migration. In addition, Caritas Europa is underlining the need to differentiate between asylum seekers and other categories of migrants. Their access to international protection must be safeguarded. “This is the challenge of our time,” said Caritas Spain’s Maria Segurado. “This is not about the next ten years, it is about the next few generations.” “It is an issue for Europe, not just Spain.” Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organisations present in over 200 countries and territories.