Image source: FreeImages.com/Yago Bruna
“Sea of tears, sea of misery” for the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “Cemetery of Europe” according to Pope Francis. “A tragedy of epic proportion” for the UNHCR spokesperson. From 2013 onwards, the Mediterranean has become the world’s most dangerous sea route for refugees and migrants.
Since the beginning of 2015, refugees and migrants are attempting in greater numbers to cross the Mediterranean Sea. According the International Organization for Migration, more than 150,000 have reached Europe by sea since January and upward of 1,900 have died so far this year in the European waters (twice more than during the same period in 2014). The vast majority landed in Italy and Greece, where the number of arrivals have exploded. Figures are expected to increase even further this year as smugglers intensify their activity during summer months.
Immigration is dependent on the international context. Most of the refugees come from the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa (mainly Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia), fleeing conflict, persecution, human rights violations or poverty. Due to the progressive closing of the EU borders in recent years, migrants have no other choice than paying several thousand euros to smugglers to reach Europe. They often sail on unsafe and crowded vessels, resulting in frequent drownings and incidents at sea.
In October 2013, after the Lampedusa shipwreck, the Italian Navy launched “Mare Nostrum”, a search and rescue operation aiming at helping boats in distress at sea. It proved itself efficient in rescuing over 166,000 people in 2014. A year later however, after pressure from member states arguing that Mare Nostrum was in fact encouraging migrants, the operation was phased out and replaced by “Triton”, a border protection operation run by the EU agency Frontex. Its mandate was far more restricted, with fewer vessels, a smaller area of operation and a budget three times lower than that of Mare Nostrum.
In response, several organisations warned the EU that such a cut back would contribute to a dramatic increase in the number of deaths and stressed the need to step up the EUs capacity to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea.
This call went unheeded until the tragic series of shipwrecks last April: 400 migrants drowned on April 12 and 800 on April 19, the largest loss of life in a single crossing. Over a thousand deaths in several days stirred up emotion among the international community, and European leaders were asked to open their eyes on this tragedy.
After an attempt to get UN Security Council approval to the use of force against smugglers boats operating out of Libya, which failed due to Libyas opposition, European leaders decided to increase Tritons resources and operational area to match that of Mare Nostrum. Germany, Ireland, Italy and the UK additionally deployed extra ships and aircrafts to boost the EU rescue capacity.
The Commission simultaneously presented a plan to relocate 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU member States. Furthermore, 20,000 resettlement places were to be offered for UN refugees from outside the EU. This quota system was rejected by several governments – Hungary, Austria, Baltic States and Spain amongst others – judging they do not have to accept a set number of migrants. Last week, on July 20, EU leaders finally agreed to redistribute the 40,000 asylum seekers, but only a voluntary basis.
The attitude of the European political leaders towards the quota system is symptomatic of a deeper problem: the reluctance of some States to address the issue of refugees at the European level. Although the Commission requested all countries to work together to find a common response, for now national interests have prevailed. Due to their dire economic situations, Italy and Greece are currently unable to face the arrival of migrants by themselves. Solidarity must remain central and only an EU-wide collective response will be effective. Whilst the world faces the worst refugee crisis since the end of World War 2, the EU has the responsibility to contribute to international burden-sharing.
Although positive actions have been effected in recent weeks, resulting in only 99 victims since the end of April, the recent a minima agreement shows that dealing with immigration policies remains extremely contentious. In the context of economic crisis and the rise of extremist political movements throughout Europe, it is clearly challenging to find the right answer. For now, the management of this crisis has been characterized by the clear lack of political will. It has prevented the EU from preventing the human tragedy taking place along its coasts. If Brussels wants to avoid more deaths, migration across the Mediterranean Sea must be put higher on the EU agenda.
Addressing the refugee crisis strictly through a security approach would be a mistake. It certainly questions the efficiency of the EU external security mechanisms, but it must be considered first and foremost as a humanitarian issue, where peoples lives are more important than protecting borders.
The fundamental causes have to be addressed: tackling only the symptoms would not be enough and maybe even unproductive. If dismantling smugglers networks is the objective, simply destroying traffickers ships is not an adequate solution. Thousands of migrants would be trapped in Libya, in the grip of violent conflict and political instability, where human-trafficking has become a very lucrative activity.
Building walls will not solve the problem either: border crossing will move to other areas, people will find unsafe alternative routes and take even greater risks to reach Europe. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said: “We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely”.
Finally and maybe most importantly, failing to address this situation as a humanitarian crisis would impact the European ideal. The EU has core values it believes in and stands for: “the respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” By remaining silent on immigration issues and unable to have a concrete common vision for its foreign policy, Europe would seriously undermine its founding principles and image around the world.
In the words of Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister, “we risk losing Europe’s noble idea if we fail Mediterranean migrants”.
Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.