Immigration: Tackling the Mediterranean Tragedy

In fifteen years more than 23,000 have lost their lives trying to reach Europe, an immense waste of human lives which prompted the EU to react

Opinion, by Pierre Bremond – Within weeks, hundreds of men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean's murky waters, a dramatic toll which adds to the 23,000 people who have lost their lives trying to reach Europe since 2000. From January to April 2015 the number of deaths went up by a factor of 17 as compared to last year's figures at the same period. This huge waste of human life has shocked European public opinion and prompted euro zone leaders to react. Which they did, tripling the budget for border surveillance and choosing the military option in the hope of rooting out smuggler's boats before they could set sail. 

Current Situation and Responses

According to Frontex, the Union's border agency, hundreds of thousands of migrants are now massed in Libya waiting to set forth for Europe to flee war-torn regions across Africa and the Middle East. Their only horizon, their only hope is Europe. But it is impossible for them to request legal asylum in Europe unless they set foot on European soil – which makes them easy targets for well-organized smugglers' networks who offer passage across the Mediterranean, on unseaworthy boats albeit at very high cost, while regarding those migrants as cattle to be bonded and bartered. 

In October 2013, after more than 350 migrants drowned off Lampedusa, Italy created Mare Nostrum, a program that rescued some 130,000 people over one year, before being discontinued. Too costly for Italy to continue. Nor did Italy want to be the only country to  be concerned about the fate of these migrants. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Triton, a European program this time, although much smaller and primarily dedicated to patrolling the European waters within 30 nautical miles of its shores.

Alas, the Triton operation is more about monitoring the borders of Europe rather than saving lives, even if it is, much fortunately, not forbidden to do both things. This response was in line with the European rejection of immigration, a policy that has been in place for over thirty years through a three-pronged strategy of militarizing border surveillance, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls. This third prong of this approach is not well known to the general public. It refers to the deals concluded between the EU and African states to outsource border controls by paying them to detain potential migrants. Such deals have already been concluded with Morocco and Libya, although the fall of Gaddafi has somewhat complicated the situation.

The tragedies of recent weeks have shocked the world. And for once, the EU has provided a swift response. Nevertheless, these efforts appear to be inadequate in view of the situation. As experts and advocacy groups point it out, the plans announced by EU leaders are far too small in scale to stem the flow of migrants. On the one hand, reinforcing patrols in the Mediterranean will only swift the problem – those determined to come to Europe will always find other entry points. Furthermore, as there's some serious money involved here, smugglers will always be very creative in this matter. On the other hand, rooting out smugglers' ships and other inflatable boats will suppose adding  more chaos to Libya's current chaos – which is one of the root cause for the migration surge. 

As President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junckerput it, in a very critical stance against the European response: "If we don't open the door, even partly, you can't act surprised when the unfortunate from across the planet break in through the window."

What Solutions?

The 28 EU countries lack of a common immigration policy and each nation is sovereign in this area and intends to remain so. Moreover, European leaders are under enormous pressure which circumscribe the ability to act. Unemployment, integration difficulties or terrorist threats are fanning temptation of isolationism and resentment of immigrants and strangers. Furthermore, one cannot deny that for some countries already struggling with domestic problems, it would be difficult to bear the financial burden imposed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants.

Nevertheless the European Union has a duty to act and help those men, women and children, whether or not in imminent danger of death. Europe must pledge to change this, because doing nothing or opting for half-measures would amount to denying the values ??of justice and solidarity among peoples that are the cornerstone of the European Union. Then, it appears essential to:

  • Implement rescue programs as a prerequisite to this pledge. However, we must go further: the European Union must overcome national sovereignties to establish a comprehensive immigration policy, including equitably sharing the financial and organizational burden of the reception of migrants and their possible integration.
  • We can no longer accept and immigration policy based on the criminalization of immigration and border control. The fight against the human trafficking networks must be accompanied by the implementation of means to provide immigrants with the opportunity to come legally to Europe, in particular by implementing screening centers in Africa and the Middle East and by updating the regulations that require migrants to set foot on EU soil to apply for asylum.
  • Immigration policies should be coupled with development agreements with emigration countries in order to improve opportunities for their people. At present, the Libyan chaos prevents any negotiation or project implementation in this purpose, but we can still negotiate with other countries and act in the long term. 

Today's migrants are entrepreneurs, they are adventurers in the noblest sense. They are the descendants of the British migrants who once boarded the Mayflower to set sail for the New World. Today's migrants are often full of resources, they usually belong to the middle class, they are more cultured than their ancestors were. In their own country, they are not the poorest, because unfortunately those are the ones who remain. These migrants have made enormous efforts to get to Europe; they have the opportunity to fully integrate into the EU and contribute to its development. Europe does not have the duty to take them all. But at least to offer them a chance.