Kayaker journeys 3,000km to promote rights of asylum seekers

A Frenchman has reached the halfway point in a kayaking voyage from Tunisia to Brussels, where he hopes to present a petition for asylum seekers’ rights to the European Parliament

A year after setting out on the 3,000km journey, Frenchman Alexandre Georges has arrived in Rome on his quest to present a petition in Brussels for a better and more standardised system for asylum claims.

Georges believes claimants are treated inhumanely, particularly in certain European countries.

The first stage of Georges’ journey replicated the Mediterranean crossing that Human Rights Watch estimates has claimed the lives of 13,500 people trying to reach Europe in unseaworthy boats since 1998.

The 44-year-old former office worker was born in Paris and moved to Canada in his twenties, where he became sensitised to the treatment of paperless migrants. He returned to Europe in 2009 and has since used up all his savings to fund his Kayak for the Right to Life project.

Georges believes the creation of a single agency to manage accommodation centres and process asylum claims across the continent could save billions of pounds, while ensuring a system that respects human rights.

The EU already has a single agency to police its borders, but management of immigrants claiming asylum once they arrive is currently in the hands of each member state, under the Dublin II Regulation. Agreed in 2003 between all EU countries as well as Iceland and Norway, the regulation says that asylum seekers must make a claim in the first EU state they enter. However, Georges and other activists say that some countries are much worse at handling asylum seekers than others, so believe a Europe-wide agency could pull up standards. This also has come from within the EU itself, with commissioner for home affairs Cecilia Malmstrom calling for a common agency since 2010.

In September of this year, commissioner Malmstrom reiterated the need for a common system, saying: “The standards for receiving asylum seekers vary considerably between EU countries. There are countries that handle their commitments well. There are countries where reception conditions need to improve.”

As an example of varying standards, Georges highlights a case in December 2011, when the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK could not send an Afghan asylum seeker back to Greece (where he’d first entered Europe before travelling to the UK), because he risked “inhuman treatment” in Greece’s overcrowded detention centres.

Georges’ petition currently has more than 600 signatures. The kayaker plans to continue collecting signatures as he lobbies politicians in Rome over winter, before kayaking up the Italian coast and via the River Rhone to Brussels, where he hopes to present the petition by next summer.