Mediterranean tragedy forces Europe to consider refugee crisis

Friday 24/04/2015
A sea and a cemetery

LONDON - Europe’s perennial immi­gration crisis was once more catapulted to the top of the political agenda after well over 1,000 mi­grants drowned in the Mediterra­nean in the space of just a couple of weeks.
At least 800 migrants drowned in a shipwreck 100 kilometres off the Libyan coast on April 19th. There were only 27 survivors. But this type of tragedy is nothing new. In Octo­ber 2013, more than 360 Africans perished when their ship ran into difficulty within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The horrific tragedy was described at the time as a wake-up call to the world, but 18 months later there is no sign of a let-up in the numbers attempting the perilous crossing in search of a better life in Europe.
The 2013 disaster prompted Italy to launch a huge effort to rescue those attempting the treacherous crossing. Enrico Letta, then the Ital­ian prime minister, said the “Mare Nostrum” operation, would prevent the Mediterranean becoming a “sea of death”.
In its one year of operation, Mare Nostrum led to the rescue of more than 150,000 people, taking them to Europe for processing at a cost of $142 million. The number of mi­grants attempting the journey, how­ever, continues to rise. According to Frontex, the EU border agency, 500,000 people are waiting to set out from Libya across the Mediter­ranean.
Italy ended Mare Nostrum in the face of European reluctance to con­tribute and spiralling costs, which made the operation increasingly difficult to justify to the Italian elec­torate.
Mare Nostrum became a conten­tious issue during European Parlia­ment elections in May 2014. One of the main criticisms of the opera­tion was that it constituted a “pull factor”. As people smugglers knew their human cargoes were likely to be rescued, the argument went, they placed even more people in un­seaworthy vessels. Leader of the an­ti-immigrant Northern League party Matteo Salvini was typical of the Italian right when he condemned the operation as “financing the peo­ple smugglers and an invasion of our coasts”.
Mare Nostrum was replaced with Operation Triton, run by Frontex under the authority of the European Union. In contrast to Mare Nostrum, whose primary purpose was search and rescue, Triton operates within 50 kilometres of the Italian coast with a primary purpose of border protection. The budget of Triton is $3 million a month, compared to more than $10 million a month for Mare Nostrum.
The scaling back of search-and-rescue coverage has led to a widely predicted spike in migrant deaths. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), following the April 19th tragedy, calculates that 1,727 migrants have died in the Mediterra­nean since the start of the year. That is more than 30 times the number over the same period in 2014, when Mare Nostrum was in operation.
Behind these tragedies lies both a sharp rise in the global number of refugees and unwillingness on the part of the European public to take them. Combined they have contributed to making Europe the most dangerous migrant destina­tion in the world. According to IOM more than 22,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe since 2000.
These daunting statistics can partly be explained by the influence on migration of the “Arab spring” uprisings. A number of states that witnessed uprisings have become engulfed by violence, leading to a flood of refugees. The effects of the civil war in Syria, for example, are reflected in Frontex statistics: Illegal border crossings by Syrians into Eu­rope were almost triple the number of any other group during the third quarter of 2014.
In response to the rising num­ber of refugees, EU countries have stepped up security on land entry points into Europe. Greece and Bul­garia, formerly major entry points, constructed wire fences along their borders with Turkey and beefed up border patrols.
Such measures have reduced the number of land-crossings into Eu­rope. In the first week of August 2012 the number of irregular migrants apprehended at the Greek land bor­der with Turkey was approximately 2,000. This dropped to fewer than 10 a week in the last weeks of Octo­ber 2012 in response to what Frontex describes as “enhanced surveillance and patrolling activities”.
With land routes more effectively policed, desperate migrants increas­ingly took to the Mediterranean as a means of reaching Europe.
The prominence of the Mediter­ranean route has been facilitated by state collapse in Libya. According to Frontex, a lack of rule of law and basic law enforcement in the North African country has allowed smug­gling networks to thrive.
The increase in the number of refugees seeking entry into Europe by any means has run up against increasing hostility among the Eu­ropean public towards new arrivals. Reflecting this, European countries, with the notable exceptions of Swe­den and Germany, have been un­willing to accept large numbers of refugees. Britain has refused to even participate in Operation Triton cit­ing the “pull factor” argument.
The hardline position of the Brit­ish government reflects an anti-im­migration sentiment across Europe. The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group to international prominence in the summer of 2014, along with a string of attacks in Eu­rope by individuals motivated by Is­lamist ideology, has led to a percep­tion that refugees from the Syrian conflict constitute a security threat to European countries.
Fuelling that fear, a video released by ISIS depicting the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach included a masked man ges­turing towards the Mediterranean with a knife, declaring: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permis­sion.”
According to Riccardo Fabiani, a Libya analyst at political risk con­sultancy Eurasia Group: “Italy sees Libya almost exclusively as an im­migration issue … And these days right-wing Italians are growing in­creasingly concerned that migration will breed radicalisation and terror­ism, although the French attacks (on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo) were carried out by second-genera­tion French citizens and not by fresh immigrants.”
In its yearly scorecard for Euro­pean foreign policy, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) blamed governments “hamstrung by public concerns about immigra­tion” for inaction on the issue, with EU member states’ decisions being “driven by the toxic debate on the effects of immigration within EU states.”
Susi Dennison, a senior policy fel­low at ECFR, notes that the current internal ministries; from security, to policing, to immigration, back to diplomats”.
With the number of deaths be­coming an international scandal, however, there is more pressure than ever for European govern­ments to find a solution to the crisis. A 10-point plan to be discussed by European leaders includes propos­als to increase resources committed to Operation Triton and expand its operational area, destroy the ves­sels of people smugglers and close off migrant routes to Libya.
Reflecting the mood of officials in Europe, French President François Hollande made clear that business as usual was no longer an option, saying, “We must go much further… and tackle these questions which have become intolerable.”