A different vision is needed to address the immigration crisis
A t least 1,300 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libyan shores during the month of April. The number of migrants who have died since the beginning of the year is 30 times higher than during the same period in 2014. It is that time of the year when would-be migrants on the southern shore of the Mediterranean feel that weather conditions are more propitious to attempt a crossing of the sea. It is also the time when unscrupulous smugglers think they can increase their profits. At a rate of about $90,000 per boatful, they literally make a killing.
In their meeting in Greece, EU countries decided to triple the funds allocated to the Operation Triton border patrols. Triton’s mandate, however, is not about search and rescue like the Mare Nostrum operation discontinued last year by Italy that saved more than 100,000 people. Under Triton, European patrols cannot go beyond 30 nautical miles from Italian shores, for fear of accentuating the “pull factor”, i.e. that the close proximity of European boats could in itself encourage even more migrants to attempt the risky venture.
Pressed by domestic public opinion, European leaders are trying to stem the unbridled flow of migrants and restrict the number of refugees and asylum seekers their countries take in. EU countries would like to establish migrant “processing camps” on North African shores, despite the impracticality of such an option.
Other European leaders, such as French President François Hollande, are advocating pre-emptive military strikes to sink smugglers’ boats before they leave the shores of North Africa, and in particular the unsecured ports of Libya. This military approach seems to borrow a page from the fight against pirates in the Horn of Africa, not considering that such an approach is impractical, dangerous and probably unlawful.
Who can determine whether a boat has no innocent people onboard? Who is entitled to issue a death sentence on presumed smugglers? What are the likely reactions to such attacks? None of these questions seem to have been carefully considered.
Worse still are the impressions such calls convey. North Africa, Europe’s southern neighbour, is now equated with the lawless shores of Somalia, hence the military modus operandi invoked. Libya needs help sorting out its domestic feuds and not European warships aiming their guns at its harbours. The current state of disarray in Libya is in great measure the result of the lack of a clear strategy in launching and ending the European- and US-supported military campaign to topple the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Libya does not need another ill-conceived Western military campaign on its shores.
The European Union must muster the vision and the will to deal with the complex situation faced by countries south of the Mediterranean, including their inability to develop enough employment opportunities, secure their borders and deal with the huge flow of displaced persons and climate of insecurity created by local and regional conflicts. Helping Libyans end their civil strife and establish a viable government could be a step in the right direction.