by Sabine Krassing
Illegal migration from the North African coast to the island of Lampedusa, situated around 300 km from the Libyan coast, has been an ongoing issue since the early 1990s, when Italy and other European countries introduced visa requirements. As early as 2002, the number of refugees coming not only from North African countries but also from the sub-Saharan region amounted around 20,000 a year, or about 2,000 a month, according to the UNHCR. At that time, migrants desperately tried to reach the European continent on ill-equipped vessels and in many cases did not make it to their destination. European leaders tried to find a response, but it appears that the problem has never been given the necessary attention. Only at the end of April 2015, when the media circulated devastating images of hundreds of migrants lying dead on the beach, could the problem no longer be ignored. The soaring number of tragedies in the Mediterranean demands a response and suggests that the core European values of human rights, tolerance and solidarity have been severely challenged in the face of what the European media and politicians describe as “tidal waves” of immigrants.
The media draws attention to the daily attempts of hundreds, even thousands, of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach the southern borders of the European Union (EU), most notably Spain, Greece and Italy (as can be seen on figures and maps provided by the International Organization for Migration [IOM]). There they hope to find shelter from armed conflict in countries like Syria and Libya, poverty and a life without prospects. According to the EU’s border agency Frontex, migrants will pay human traffickers up to € 7,000. They are then squeezed onto overcrowded, shaky vessels with hundreds of others to get across the Mediterranean to the Promised Land.
During these journeys migrants suffer inhumane conditions, and ruthless smugglers often rape and torture them. An Amnesty International report from May 10, 2015 states that migrants risk these journeys, “even when they became more aware of the associated risks” of crossing the Mediterranean. Current numbers, collated by IOM, reveal that even within the first five months of 2015, more than 30,000 migrants arrived on the Italian coasts while the death toll continued to soar.
Not all of this is new. Italy has been a primary destination since the 1970s. After the 2011 revolutionary wave of unrest in North Africa, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) intervention in Libya and the subsequent ousting of the Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, migration flows to European countries have increased at an extraordinary speed. In this situation of instability, Libya and Tunisia, once a destination for migrants, became departure states, and ever larger waves of migrants began to flee to the “boot” of Europe.
Not until 2013, after the drowning of 366 migrants in the waters near Sicily, was there a first major response by the Italian Government. It established the search and rescue mission Mare Nostrum, a one-year mission controlled by the Italian Navy, which saved over 150,000 lives, according to the UNHCR.
But migration via the Central Mediterranean route had already been incredibly high. In June 2014, the United Nations (UN) stated that “global refugee figures are the highest since the Second World War.” With ongoing unrest in the Middle East and Africa, the numbers kept rising until Italy could no longer carry the financial and operational burden on its own.
The Italian government demanded EU assistance. In response, at the end of August 2014, the former European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, announced the launch of “Frontex Plus,” an operation meant only to “complement what Italy [had] been doing.” Although Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had originally promised that Mare Nostrum would not be stopped until the EU came up with equivalent proposals, he halted Mare Nostrum on October 31, 2014, citing an unsustainable financial burden. On November 1, the Italian mission was replaced by the Frontex operation Triton.
Triton is not as well financed as Mare Nostrum, with only € 2.9 million per month—a third of the budget of the Italian mission. And instead of being a search and rescue mission, Triton is concerned with border control and cross-border crime. It also covers a narrower territory, only patrolling the waters up to 30 miles (55.6 kilometres) from Italy’s southern coast. Several non-governmental organizations and agencies have criticized Triton for lacking the capability to search for and save migrants, and that it is a far too limited version of Mare Nostrum.
In April 2015, the crisis escalated further when a boat carrying nearly 800 migrants capsized. This incident put the steadily increasing migrant inflows back in the headlines and forced the EU and its Member States to renegotiate their migration policies. Questions and criticisms quickly resurfaced. Ban Ki-moon, the General Secretary of the UN, urged “European leaders to address this issue in a more comprehensive way and collective way.” Pope Francis exhorted the European Parliament: “We [the European countries] cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast graveyard.”
EU members convened for an emergency summit, and on May 13, after intense negotiations, they adopted the new “European Agenda on Migration.” The proposed changes aim to provide additional means in order to search and rescue migrants and to divide the flow of incoming migrants amongst all member states. According to William Lacy Spring, Director General of the IOM, these initiatives “reflect serious and constructive approaches to a challenge which [the organization] expects to continue.” Another proposal recommends military means to detect and combat illegal human trafficking rings. With regards to this, the IOM fears that military actions could “further endanger migrant lives.”
However, the question of how to divide the refugee burden remains. Countries such as the UK, Spain and France oppose shared responsibility. According to a spokesman of Britain’s Home Office, the UK does not believe that “a mandatory system of resettlement is the answer.” However, these countries also participated in the intervention in Libya and the toppling of its leader, which observers agree, led to the instabilities the country now faces.
By contrast, Germany and Italy, who are currently accommodating the largest share of incoming migrants, strongly support a shared solution. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has urged the EU to “display more solidarity among [Member States].” This was echoed by former Austrian chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who commented “many people have the impression that we are facing overwhelming waves of refugees with no end in sight.”
Given the tense situation currently facing the Middle East and many African countries and the ever-increasing number of trans-Mediterranean border-crossings, it seems likely that only common and coordinated EU policies and actions will succeed in alleviating the suffering of the migrants in the short run, and in the longer run, achieve a reduction in mass migration. As stated during a panel discussion on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna on June 8, 2015, a global approach is needed, including cooperation with third countries, in particular the countries of departure and transit. The first steps have been taken, but only time will tell whether or not things are heading in the right direction.