EU leaders triple funding for rescue operations, but no migration solution in sight

Friday 01/05/2015
Rediscovering the Mediterranean

London - EU leaders agreed at an emergency summit to tri­ple the funding of Opera­tion Triton, the European Union’s border policing mission in the central Mediterra­nean.

The April 23rd meeting in Brussels came in the wake of international outrage at the drowning of more than 900 people in a shipwreck 110 kilometres off the Libyan coast. Only 28 of those on the unseaworthy vessel, including its skipper, Mohammed Ali Malek, survived the incident. Malek, 27, is facing charges of illegal confinement, cul­pable homicide, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration.

After the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the need for urgency, declaring that “Money should be no object” when it comes to saving the lives of migrants.

The tripling of the budget for Op­eration Triton from $3.25 million to $9.8 million a month brings Triton’s budget in line with that of its prede­cessor, Mare Nostrum.

But there remains one crucial dif­ference between the two opera­tions. While Mare Nostrum was a search-and-rescue operation, pa­trolling close to the Libyan coast, Operation Triton is a border-protec­tion operation, with a mandate to patrol only within 60 kilometres of the Italian coastline. The Brussels summit may have tripled the budget of Operation Triton, but it did not change its restricted mandate.

Operation Triton takes place un­der the authority of Frontex, the European Union’s border agency. In comments to the Guardian newspa­per on the eve of the Brussels sum­mit the head of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, was unequivocal that Tri­ton’s mandate would not change.

“Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Fron­tex’s mandate and this is in my un­derstanding not in the mandate of the European Union,” Leggeri said.

Advocacy groups quickly con­demned the response of European leaders as inadequate.

Amnesty International (AI) brand­ed the summit as “face-saving, not life-saving”, pointing out that with­out deploying resources close to the Libyan coast where many of the drownings occur, the death toll will continue to rise.

The limited operational area of Triton and its focus on border pro­tection reflects a long-standing re­luctance of some European leaders to accept more migrants. Many poli­ticians have reflected a widespread belief that the generous mandate of Mare Nostrum constituted a “pull factor” for migrants, encouraging smugglers to pack more migrants on unseaworthy vessels in the belief they would be rescued.

The persistent reluctance to settle more migrants was clear in the ac­tions of some leaders at the Brussels summit. While British Prime Min­ister David Cameron committed to deploy Britain’s flagship HMS Bul­wark, three helicopters and two pa­trol ships to the Mediterranean, he stressed that any migrants rescued would be taken directly to Italy and not to the United Kingdom. Cameron also flatly rejected taking part in a voluntary scheme to resettle North African migrants across EU members.

The failure to reach agreement on the resettle­ment issue reflects deep disagreement and disquiet among EU members about asylum and immigration policies. Germany has led calls for a scrapping of the present EU rules on asylum seekers, known as the Dublin regulations.

Under the Dublin regulations, asylum seekers must claim asylum in the first EU country they enter, placing a heavy burden on south­ern European entry points such as Italy. The system does not appear to be working, however, and Germany accuses southern states of fail­ing to register many migrants and encouraging them to move on to Germany, which has no border con­trols with Italy, for example, as both are in the border-free Schengen area.

The haphazard nature of the pre­sent system is reflected in the statis­tics. Germany, despite not being an entry-point for illegal migrants and asylum seekers, received 173,070 asylum applications. This is more than twice as any other EU member. More geographically remote Britain, which is not a member of the Schen­gen area, received 31,260 applica­tions.

The deep-seated differences sur­rounding the resettlement issue have prevented EU leaders agreeing on the number of migrants to be re­settled and the location of resettle­ment.

“We didn’t fix a number today be­cause it was our opinion that 5,000 is not enough,” Merkel said after the summit.

Unable to agree on a new approach to asylum, and with many European politicians concerned about domes­tic opposition to increased immi­gration and concerns over the “pull factor” argument, leaders instead focused their attention on stem­ming the flow of arrivals.

Leaders tasked EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini with lining up diplomatic options that would al­low EU military to strike against the boats used by traffickers, including a supporting UN Security Council resolution.

With Libya in political chaos, however, it is difficult to see how European states can hope to stem the flow of those making the peril­ous journey.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) calculates that the latest tragedies push the death toll for migrants crossing the Medi­terranean to more than 1,750 for the first four months of this year. This is many times higher than the same period in 2014, when Mare Nostrum, with its expansive search-and-res­cue mandate, was in operation.

“A truly effective European opera­tion needs to be not only properly funded and equipped but should also have a clear mandate to save lives as the first priority and not be shackled by the geographical re­strictions that are currently keeping the patrols of the EU’s border con­trol mission, Operation Triton, near the Italian and Maltese coasts,” said Alessandro Bechini, director of Ox­fam’s programmes in Italy.