Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

They Went to Sea in a SIEV



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Catriona Jarvis and Syd Bolton. Catriona is Co-Convener and Founder of the Last Rights Project and a Director of Methoria, a UK registered human rights charity. She is a former judge of the UK Upper Tribunal (Immigration & Asylum Chamber), and has extensive experience working internationally in refugee and human rights, especially regarding the rights of women and children and the bereaved. Syd is also a Co-Convener and Founder of the Last Rights Project, and a Director of Methoria. He is a UK lawyer (non-practising) and specialises in children’s rights as well as refugee and human rights law. 

This is the sixth post from our new themed series focusing on selected chapters from the newly published Handbook of Migration and Global Justice, edited by Leanne Weber and Claudia Tazreiter and published by Edward Elgar. The editors’ complete introduction to the handbook is available as an open access download here.

Recent burial. Kata Tritos Migrant Cemetery – Greece (October 2021 photograph © Syd Bolton)\n\n

In times when the entire world has had to confront the effects of the Covid-19 virus pandemic, it is becoming increasingly more evident that those who have been amongst the most negatively impacted not only by the virus but by the measures imposed by states in response to it, have been migrants, and none more so than those in transit and with precarious legal status (see for example the recent Last Rights Project Report, Every Body Counts). Whilst the Handbook of Migration and Global Justice was conceived and commenced prior to the onset of this pandemic, its publication in summer 2021 is nevertheless well informed by and includes timely considerations about its particular impacts on migrants and migration. It is an essential contribution to understanding many of the underlying inequalities, policies and dangerous state practices that have contributed heavily to the additional harms suffered by migrants during this pandemic and without doubt, will continue to do so long afterwards. Our own chapter in this book, “They Went To Sea In a SIEV” examines some of those policies and practices in the context of states’ deterrence measures at and beyond the national border. It also proposes a new framework of practical measures and minimum standards to meet the complex needs of families of deceased and missing migrants  (The Mytilini Declaration 2018) firmly rooted in international human rights law, to protect migrants and in particular to better enable  those families to access their rights to justice and to the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones.

With the catastrophic number of deaths suffered around the world from the pandemic now numbering in the millions, those who have died in migrant camps, on dangerous journeys at sea and over land have been rendered less visible. The causes of their deaths and disappearances have been even less subject to investigation and examination, the ability of families to pursue truth and justice and to bury and mourn their loved ones is even more denied. In some ways this can be attributed to the immediate, practical problems most states have faced in dealing with a rapidly escalating emergency for their whole populations, including pressures placed on health and emergency services, the inability of many civil society organisations to provide their usual face to face support and welfare services , the perfunctory closure of essential public services and rapid transformation into ad hoc virtual communities and services.

In addition, strict border closures, quarantine regimes and latterly, compulsory vaccination ‘passporting’ have all made the lives of migrants much more difficult to navigate.  Those who have lost family en route have found their ability to search for their loved ones seriously curtailed, forensic tracing expertise unavailable, repatriation of the deceased extremely difficult and entry to a state or territory to mourn and bury them abruptly terminated. For those who continued to journey from perilous situations, deaths continue to occur at sea, and on land, and borders are more and more extremely policed. Regimes such as that in Libya detain refugees in inhumane conditions, subject detainees to torture and openly force boats back to the Libyan coast in contravention of international law. Violations at the border have become more and more visibly violent and confrontational, for example on the Greece-Turkey border on the Evros river and at other entry points into Europe like the Hungarian and Polish borders. Countries such as the United Kingdom, recently disengaged from the European Union and its common asylum system, seek to copy the harsh off-shore asylum processing measures of places like Australia. The UK government has even gone so far as to try to embed sea pushback operations in proposed new legislation, widening the scope and severity of criminal penalties for attempted entry and granting to officials legal immunity for deaths and injuries caused by deterrence operations (see Adrian Berry Cosmopolis blogpost October 2021).  On the borders of host states, refugees are held in harsh and unjustified extended ‘quarantine’ conditions long after measures imposed on the resident population have been relaxed. Access to health care and to vaccination programmes for undocumented migrants, particularly in detention camps is routinely denied or long delayed and the recording of the causes of death during this period of emergency severely compromised.

It is in this context that the Handbook is an important but also urgent read.  The Last Rights Project, discussed in Chapter 16 contains the full text of the Mytitlini Declaration as its Annex (pp275-278) and reminds us that the failure to investigate deaths, to refuse to memorialise deaths, to deny access to post mortem information and burial sites of those who lost their lives on migration journeys, creates a culture of impunity and a culture of denial of truth and justice. At its most fundamental, the cruel and indifferent ways in which the state through its migration policies dehumanises migrants, denies the reality of their deaths and denies them their dignity as human beings. The Mytilini Declaration sets out the most fundamental requirements for states to adhere to. To search for and to recover bodies, to respect those bodies, to preserve property and identity and to return them to their families, to maintain records and identify burial sites, to treat citizens and non-citizens equally and with dignity in death. The pandemic has provided an all too convenient excuse for states to resile from these most basic of duties. In the coming years we will slowly begin to recover from this pandemic and yet large swathes of the globe will remain unvaccinated and at risk, will be discriminated against by force and be left even more outside the new legal frameworks of a post-pandemic world. We need to return urgently to the values of international human rights protection, as an international community. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Jarvis, C. and Bolton, S. (2021). They Went to Sea in a SIEV. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/12/they-went-sea [date]

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