Mediterranean tragedy forces Europe to consider refugee crisis
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.”