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The Mediterranean Migration Crisis: How Will the EU Respond?

Protest signs visible at the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ demonstration in March 2013. Photo: Daniel Müller, Flickr CC
Protest signs visible at the ‘Lampedusa in Hamburg’ demonstration in March 2013. Photo: Daniel Müller, Flickr CC

In 2014, over 3,000 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Violence in Syria, Eritrea and Libya has contributed to the rise in migrants attempting to reach Europe’s borders from Africa and the Middle East. Many people turn to illegal smugglers who often extort passengers, overload flimsy boats, and even capsize ships deliberately. The increase in sea crossings (over 100,000 people have reached Italy this year) is thought to be a result of stricter border control policies on land, including the fences and border guards that mark the Turkish borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Many of these migrants have legitimate claims to asylum, and the countries of the European Union are bound to consider their cases by the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. In his proposed agenda for the European Commission presented after this year’s EU parliamentary elections, Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the migration crisis in the Mediterranean is “first of all a humanitarian imperative.” But what efforts will European nations take to address this crisis? And will they indeed prioritize human rights and safety over security and budget concerns?

Italy’s unilateral Mare Nostrum border mission ended this October. In its wake, Frontex, the EU border management agency, will run a joint surveillance operation known as Trident. Mare Nostrum was created in 2013 in the wake of a shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa that killed over 300 people and brought international attention to the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. Though the program was primarily a military operation focused on detecting illegal smuggling activities, its search and rescue teams saved thousands of migrants from the often perilous journey across the sea.

In contrast, the Triton operation will not be equipped to carry out proactive search and rescue missions and will instead focus solely on border surveillance. Frontex’s operations director insists that Triton was not intended to be a replacement for Mare Nostrum and is not designed or funded for assisting ships in distress; European nations remain individually responsible for aiding vessels in emergency situations according to international maritime law. However, many observers have claimed that by refusing to prioritize the safety of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the EU and its member states will effectively condemn hundreds or thousands of people to death or serious injury in an environment already known to be fraught with danger.

Parliament billboard from 2009. Photo: European Parliament, Flickr CC
Parliament billboard from 2009. Photo: European Parliament, Flickr CC

Recent prominent critics of Europe’s insufficient action include Pope Francis, who in a speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg said that “we cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery.” Amnesty International has also voiced concerns about the EU’s handling of asylum seekers. They believe EU leaders should prioritize rescuing refugees in danger of drowning or dehydration over the unresolved debate about the procedure for processing and settling migrants, once they have arrived in Europe.

While improving intake centers and clarifying asylum decision-making are all part of the EU’s planned Common Asylum Policy, the urgency of migrant boat crossings suggests that in the short-term, the EU must focus on these preventable deaths. EU member states are generally reluctant to commit to a broad, supranational effort to address the serious logistical and financial challenges presented by this migration crisis. The British government has said it will not provide support for additional search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean because doing so, one official argued, would create an “unintended pull factor” that would encourage more migrants to attempt the journey by making it potentially less deadly. The head of the British Refugee Council said in response, “people fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings…The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.” In the short term, the Italian government has pledged to continue its operations in the Mediterranean until the EU can come up with a suitable replacement, but it remains unclear what this commitment entails.

Caption: Wrecked boat in Lampedusa. Photo: Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left
Caption: Wrecked boat in Lampedusa. Photo: Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left

The European Parliament is scheduled to vote on a migration policy resolution on December 17, and plans to address the possible expansion of Triton. The resolution also raises the larger question of whether the EU should develop a more holistic approach to migration. There are many issues for the EU to address and member states often don’t see eye to eye. Only this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that member states may not require asylum seekers who have fled from countries that persecute homosexuality to undergo tests that purport to prove their sexual orientation, as some EU nations had been doing. The lack of agreement at an EU level comes down for many nations to concerns about burden sharing: some countries on the Mediterranean coast must face the immediate arrival of people seeking refuge at their borders; other countries take on a larger percentage of the asylum-seekers than their fellow EU members. Frontex can only operate with the budget and resources it is given by the EU members. Triton, as it stands now, has little chance of success unless there is increased support from EU member states for its search and rescue ability and greater effort to help third countries curtail smuggling and support refugees.

Alison Zinna

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