Interview with Sara Palacios Arapiles

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Question: I have read about your PhD project related to the plight of  Eritrean asylum seekers in Europe. How did you develop interest on Eritrea?

Answer: My PhD and also my interest on Eritrea build upon a testimony that an Eritrean refugee shared at an event at the University of Nottingham (where I am doing my PhD now) five years ago. Among many things, he said: “I fled because I wanted to contribute to society.” Then we learnt from him how in Eritrea most citizens are prevented from contributing to society. In addition to fleeing human rights abuses, his flight was driven by the strong desire to become the person he chooses to be. This, which many of us take for granted, is a ‘privilege’ that most people in Eritrea do not enjoy. He survived human rights abuses in Eritrea and a dangerous sea journey with the strength to begin again. He started from scratch in a foreign land, where he completed his postgraduate studies (whilst working night shifts to be able to afford tuition fees). This is an impressive feat, as a refugee, he had to face additional obstacles beyond the normal university student. Not only he courageously overcame those obstacles but he has significantly contributed to the host community. Indeed, besides perusing his studies and working, he volunteered for several charities and NGOs and helped his community in various ways. He currently works in his own chosen field, a chance (and a right) which he was denied of in Eritrea.

I am extremely lucky that our paths crossed 5 years ago. He is indeed a source of inspiration. His life serves as an example to me and gives me the strength and motivation to continue working with full commitment. I believe that academic research can shape policies and legislation and influence policy-makers in a positive way, and that is one of the main reasons I am conducting my PhD research project. But behind my current research project (and related previous projects I have also being involved in), it is and will always be his voice.

Question: Some say Europe is drifting rapidly towards a disturbing trend of criminalisation of refugee-related humanitarian activism. What do you think should be done in terms of the requirements of a sensible and responsible European migration policy?

Answer: Whilst this Eritrean refugee survived his journey, he could have died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Not only his family and friends, but also Nottingham, the United Kingdom and the world would have lost a great human being and active citizen. His field would also have been affected by his loss. He is successfully researching on the developments of new medicines which will eventually help saving lives. First and foremost, the general public’s perception of refugees needs to change. Unfortunately, refugees are often presented in the media and by some politicians as well as seen by many as vulnerable, benefit-dependent and potential social and economic threats to the host society. This, in turn, is legitimising policies that are not in line with human rights standards. However, this person is a glowing example of how refugees can contribute positively to society in diverse ways. There is a need to document these stories to create awareness about the positive impacts of refugees on host countries.

Second, we, Europeans, have the ‘machinery’ to respect human rights; we just need to implement it. Unfortunately, our migration policies are turning into stricter control policies. Whilst the Spanish socialist MEP, Juan Fernando López Aguilar, on behalf of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, presented a proposal for resolution on search and rescue in the Mediterranean on 21 October 2019, it was rejected by the European Parliament by two votes. In the past years, search and rescue have been left to NGOs alone, which have been carrying out humanitarian assistance and related work in support of refugees and migrants. Some of their activities, however, have been criminalised, thereby restricting the work of NGOs. Yet, we have the legal and moral obligation to protect all human beings, regardless of their legal status. Let’s not wait for few decades to then regret for the atrocities committed in the past.

Question: Speaking in comparative terms, which countries from Western Europe have progressive asylum policy and which ones do not?

Answer: Beyond appropriate reception conditions, long term needs of refugees need to be properly addressed. The acquisition of citizenship through naturalisation within a ‘reasonable’ period of time, in my opinion, helps rebuilding lives in a sustainable way. In the United Kingdom, refugees are eligible to apply for citizenship after six years of holding a residence permit, whilst in other European countries, such as Germany or Switzerland, refugees must wait for almost a decade or more to be able to naturalise. This, in turn, impacts on the integration of refugees in host countries, who further live under fear of being forcibly returned to their countries of origin.

Of a particular note is that EU law codifies two separate statuses, namely refugee status and subsidiary protection. The latter is granted upon individuals who do not qualify for refugee status but who however are in need of international protection as they would face torture or other forms of serious harm upon return. EU law, though, allows Member States to distinguish the treatment of refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries. On that basis, many EU Member States have opted for granting fewer rights, both in terms of quantity and quality, to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. In addition to issuing residence permits of different duration to refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries, some countries have restricted or excluded altogether subsidiary protection beneficiaries from the right to family reunification. Among these countries are Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Austria. Also, some EU Member States do not provide with travel documents to those who are granted subsidiary protection. This, according to empirical data I recently collect for my PhD, seems to be the case in Germany, which in turn ‘forces’ subsidiary protection beneficiaries (including Eritreans) to engage with the authorities of their respective countries to obtain a passport if they wish to travel outside of the host country. This puts Eritreans at further risk as, for any consular assistance, they have to pay 2% of their income and sign an ‘apology letter’, which consists of a statement of regret for having committed (according to the Eritrean Government) an offence by not completing the national service, thereby accepting any punishment on that basis.

Thank you for your time.