Despite record numbers of migrants dying trying to enter Europe, EU remains reluctant to overhaul migration policies "No man is illegal." Photo taken in Berlin, Germany July 18, 2014 by Stephanie Reist.
On September 10th yet another migrant boat tragedy occurred in the Mediterranean Sea. According to survivors, Human traffickers deliberately capsized a ship off the coast of Malta, resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 people. The ship, which departed from Egypt, carried men, women, and children from Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Egypt. Two Palestinian survivors of the tragedy told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that the smugglers laughed and taunted the migrants after ramming the ship, and even chopped at the hands of a drowning man trying to hold on to their boat.
In a statement following the incident, IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle attested to the cruel nature of the intentional capsizing: “If survivors’ reports are confirmed, this will be the worst shipwreck of migrants in years, not an accidental tragedy, but the apparent deliberate drowning of migrants by criminal gangs who extort money for their desperate journeys. Their actions are as callous as they are evil.”
Since the incident, accounts from other survivors have backed-up the initial claims. This is just one incident in a disturbing trend. According to the IOM, nearly 3000 people have died so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Europe, compared to 700 in all of 2013. The migrant ships, often flimsy and overcrowded, typically depart from Egypt, Libya and Morocco on journeys of over 300 miles depending on the destination. Migrants range from refugees fleeing conflict ridden areas like Syrian and Gaza, to economic migrants from across North Africa and the Middle East. Since smugglers are often paid by migrants upfront, they have little incentive to ensure their safe passage.
Three hundred and sixty of the deaths in 2013 occurred during the Lampedusa tragedy last October. The gruesome tactics of the traffickers highlight the vulnerable conditions the migrants often find themselves in, even when the waters are calm—smugglers associated with the Lampedusa Tragedy have since been arrested for raping and torturing migrants prior to the shipwreck.
While many in Europe, including President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, have recognized the recent shipwreck as a “humanitarian catastrophe,” leaders seem reluctant to take serious actions to address the growing death toll off of the EU’s shores. With citizens throughout Europe increasingly calling for tighter borders, even within the EU, comprehensive migration reform will remain a political challenge.
Mediterranean island and border nations are increasingly calling for support from the rest of the EU in dealing with irregular migrants. They feel they must individually police the maritime border despite many migrants ultimately wanting to reach more economically stable countries like Germany and the UK. European nations regulate their own labor-migration policies for non-EU citizens and due to the Dublin Regulation, the first country to accept an asylum claim is responsible for that person, allowing other EU states to send the person back to the state where asylum was first granted.
Because it is often seen as a gateway between Northern African and much of Western Europe, Italy has become the focal point for migration policy. Following the Lampedusa tragedy, the Italian armed services began Operation Mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’ in Latin), a search and rescue strategy that has saved more than 100,000 people since the beginning of 2014. However, Italian government officials argue that Italy can no longer bear the burden of a migration and humanitarian crisis that impacts the entire European Union. It costs Italy an estimated $12 million a month to patrol the Mediterranean and safeguard the lives of irregular migrants, who are often a mix of both asylum seekers and economic migrants.
Some have argued that Operation Mare Nostrum has even emboldened traffickers, since they now know that migrants will make it to Europe on Italian rescue boats.
Recently, Italy has hoped that Frontex Plus, a proposed extension to the EU’s Frontex migration management agency to monitor the Mediterranean, would be a continental replacement for Mare Nostrum. However, the role Frontex Plus will play is still being outlined as European nations continue to debate which nations should be operationally and fiscally responsible for policing human trafficking, monitoring sea borders, taking in asylum seekers, and curbing a growing humanitarian crisis. EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström shared this sentiment in a recent trip to Malta—another principle European destination for irregular migrants: “Rather than burden sharing we should be talking about responsibility sharing...with 28 member states we should be doing much more, but there is no legal mechanism to impose this.”
With ongoing turmoil in the Middle East with the rise of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, there is little hope that the flow of migrants will decrease in the coming months. Just this past Thursday, a cruise ship rescued 345 Syrian refugees near Cyprus after the boat put out a distress call. For now, individual EU nations must continue to balance humanitarian intervention with calls for tighter borders and few migrants.