The Mediterranean sea is the most dangerous migrating route in the world. In 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) concluded that 75% of the total migrant-related deaths in the world lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea. Unfortunately, many experts predict that 2015 could be one of the deadliest years in modern history. This prediction was confirmed with the tragic event in mid-April with the death of an estimated 900 migrants with only 28 survivors.
“unless Europe acts to reform its failed policy on migration” writes the editorialist of the New York Times of April 21st, “this could be the deadliest year yet for the thousands of people who fled to Libya from conflict-torn regions across the Middle East and Africa, only to find themselves in a deadly pincer.” After years of inactivity and avoidance of this problem, the Member States are now facing human and political crises requiring rapid and substantial solutions. Blaming the EU for such failed policy would be an error, as according the Treaties, the Member States are the ones in charged of the security of their borders. The protection of the territory depends on the Member States, not on the EU. In this current crisis, the Member States have three options: first, to patch a problem with a short-term policy; second, to do nothing; third, to empower the EU. In any case, the Europeans are now facing a dilemma.
How can the EU identify itself as a normative power with that many people trying to reach its coasts for a better life? And, how can the EU bring a serious solution on the table when so many EU Member States are dealing with the rise of extreme-right wing parties – for many xenophobist and racist – domestically?
The Central Route to Europe
The crisis in Libya is serious for two reasons. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, led by an Euro-Atlantic coalition, the country has spiraled into a civil war. The civil war has created a power vacuum in the middle of North Africa offering the exit point for many Northern and Central Africans leaving their home countries because of political violence, war, dire economic conditions, terrorism with the hope to reach the European continent for a better life. Libya has become the transit country for most of illegal migration. In addition to unchecked migration, the civil war and lack of government have offered a new ground to the Islamic State (IS). IS has emerged in the country directly threatening neighboring countries, which includes Europe.
The migrants leaving their countries have changed over the years. They were once the
poorest and the most desperate. Today’s migrants are composed of individuals belonging to the middle class with a predominance of women and children. Some come from Middle East countries devastated by war like in Syria, Iraq and others from further South such as Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Eritrea and Somalia. The price of the trip has increased and cost between €2,000 and 6,000 per person. Migrants can ask for asylum in a European country unless they set foot on European ground. Such law empowers the smugglers. Once in Europe, their lives remain extremely difficult.
If Libya is the exit point of Africa, Italy is one of the entry points of Europe. Since the Arab Spring, Italy has been on the front line of illegal mass-migration from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). For years the numbers of migrants seeking asylum in Europe has considerably increased. The Central Mediterranean Route, from Libya to Italy, has seen a serious increase of illegal migrants from 40,000 in 2008 to 170,000 in 2014 (see here the different routes to Europe).
As reported in the New York Times by Jim Yardley, “after a year in which more than 3,200 people died and more than 130,000 were rescued by Italian naval and coast guard ships. Humanitarian groups estimate that nearly 500 people have already died at sea this year, compared with about 50 in the same period last year.” The Mediterranean has become a large cemetery at the doorstep of Europe. The number of death at sea is increasing. So far this year, it has been estimated that more than 500 migrants have died as opposed to 47 in the same period of 2014. Additional Lampedusas may very well become routine considering the recent numbers.
From Mare Nostrum to Triton
In order to control this illegal migration, but mostly in reaction to the Lampedusa catastrophe costing the lives to 232 migrants in October 2013, the Italian launched a program in October 2013, Operation Mare Nostrum, in which the Italian navy was used in order to stop boats transporting illegal migrants. Because of the continuous rise of migrants and an increase in the cost of the operation (around $9.7 million per month), the Italians have been calling for support from their European counterparts in sharing the burden on costs and materials as all European nations are directly or indirectly confronting the problems of illegal migrations. Ultimately the Italian cancelled Mare Nostrum because of financial constrains considered too costly within the dire Italian economic context.
In November 2014 Mare Nostrum ended and let the spotlight to a small European program, Triton, under the supervision of Frontex, the European immigration agency. Triton is much smaller in scope, in geographical coverage (operates only within 30 nautical miles of European shores), and in financial terms (represents 1/3 of Mare Nostrum’s budget). Additionally, Frontex depends on the supports and contributions of Member States in order to receive material and human capabilities. Last but not least Triton’s mission is not to replace Italy’s work on protection of its territory but assists it when needed. As per the European Commission’s memo of October 2014 “Triton is intended to support the Italian efforts, and does not replace or substitute Italian obligations in monitoring and surveying the Schengen external borders and in guaranteeing full respect of EU and international obligations, in particular when it comes to search and rescue at sea.” Frontex coordinates, Italy leads.
Table: Comparative Analysis of the Mare Nostrum with Triton
The table clearly demonstrates the fundamental distinction between Mare Nostrum and Triton in terms of mandate. Triton’s mandate does not make the operation a search and rescue mission, but simply a border management operation. Additionally, the capabilities provided to Frontex are based on the contribution of the willing Member States. Frontex facilities the work of the Italian navy. Frontex’s hands are clearly tied.
European Union’s Responses and Actions
European reactions and responses will depend on the complex paradigm: balancing humanitarian responsibilities against budget constraints and widespread public sentiment against immigration. Ensuing the catastrophe, most European officials and heads of state and government expressed their emotions. In addition, President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, called an emergency European summit meeting for Thursday, April 23rd to address the issue. The problem of illegal migration and lack of EU unity was addressed in a report eight years ago wherein the EU acknowledged a “disunity within the E.U. over which obligations arise from E.U. fundamental rights, international human rights and refugee law, and how these obligations relate to the law of the sea.”
Matteo Renzi of Italy and his counterpart Joseph Muscat of Malta declared during a joint conference after the weekend that “What happened on Sunday was a game changer. There is a new realization that if Europe doesn’t act as a team, history will judge it very harshly, as it did when it closed its eyes to stories of genocide — horrible stories — not long ago.” The President of European Parliament, Martin Schulz, made a similar argument when raising two questions: “How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe?” “How many times more do we want to express our dismay, only to then move on to our daily routine?”
Frederica Mogherini, Chief of EU Foreign Affairs, declared once again ‘‘We have said too many times ‘Never again.’ Now is time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay.’’ French President François Hollande called for more material capabilities “more boats, more aerial surveillance and a much tougher fight against traffickers.”
Prior the extraordinary European summit meeting, the President of the European Council highlighted a list of overarching questions: How to stop the human traffickers, whom put the migrants’ lives at risk? How to step up European combined efforts for rescuing people in need? How to better help the EU Member States most affected? and, how to step up European cooperation with countries of origins and transits?
Days before the summit, during a joint meeting of Foreign and Interior Ministers with HR Mogherini, Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner Avramopoulos presented a 10 point plan of the immediate actions in the Mediterranean region. During the emergency meeting of Thursday, the European heads of government agreed on a list of points:
- First, the High Representative (HR) is now charged of the mission to “propose actions in order to capture and destroy the smugglers’ vessels before they can be used.”
- Second, Triton’s budget has been tripled and is now at the same level than Mare Nostrum and Member States have committed more material resources (no numbers though).
- Third, increase cooperation with origin and transit countries, especially Libya.
These agreements seem quite shallow considering the complexity of the problem. The Commission is scheduled to deliver its Europe Agenda on Migration due on May 13, which in Juncker’s words “We will be ambitious. We will be bold.” The destruction of boats and an increase of budget are only a quick fix to a regional problem requiring state-building, economic and trade cooperations, security sector reforms, additional humanitarian and aid assistance, and even military interventions.
Solidarity, Responsibility and Norms
“With no coherent policy and woefully insufficient financing,” writes the New York Times “lives are needlessly being put at risk, and the European Union’s humanitarian values are exposed as meaningless.” The continuous dying of migrants at the doorstep of fortress
Europe is forcing the EU and its Member States to reflect on three dimensions: solidarity; responsibility; and normative action. Solidarity is the core component of a social contract and an Union like the EU. Unfortunately with the financial crisis and the rise of populist movements throughout the Union, this core value has been lost in translation.
“The E.U. has been struggling to respond to the crisis because governments think it is too expensive,” Mr. Pascouau said, and “the debate on immigration has become toxic because of the rise of the far right.” Sweden, Poland, Austria need to be as concerned as mediterranean Member States about the rise of illegal migrants and their deaths in vein. Most migrants do not stay in Spain, Italy or Greece, they are trying to reach France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden. In this case, solidarity can be represented under two dimensions: material, human and financial aspects; and a reform of the European immigration policy.
Solidarity does not only imply European solidarity, but global solidarity. During an interview with NPR with François Crepeau, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, argued in having the Global North (North America and the EU) absorbing immigrants. He argues that the best solution in resolving the massive illegal influx of migrants is through the integration of these migrants in each country of the Global North over a 5-10 years period by giving them visas in order to build a life. Crepeau claims that by offering them a legal solution/exit they would wait in their home countries for a way out rather than risking their lives and burning all their savings. The EU-28, especially European citizens, needs to accept such option and implement it and then find a common agreement with the US and Canada. Unfortunately this option seems off the table as Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, declared after the extraordinary summit that his “proposal for legal immigration was not supported” in order to secure resettlement across Europe for 10,000 refugees.
Responsibility, Member States ought to demonstrate their commitment to the Treaties and accept their own responsibility in the deaths. So many Member States are blaming the EU for these catastrophes, when in fact the Member States are to be blamed. Even though the blame game is counter productive, Member States and domestic political parties ought to have serious national discussion about the rise of illegal migrants from Africa. The arguments of closing the borders, ending the Schengen agreement and passing the buck to neighbors are unacceptable. Member States have to increase spending and cooperation either at the European level or even on bilateral basis.
Normative action seems to have died in the Mediterranean sea. The EU and the EU-28 need to materialize the self-proclamation of soft power through actions. Even if one cannot expect the EU to solve the migration problems coming from Africa, the EU and its Member States have to demonstrate a willingness to work with African partners. During an interview with a French expert on European defense in 2010, he argued that the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) was developed in order to solve the most pressing
crises in Africa. He claimed that if the Europeans were not doing as much as possible in order to solve political cronyism in Africa, terrorism, and contribute on stabilizing the region with substantial economic incentives, the European continent would be flooded by massive waves of migrants. This expert was 100% correct.
Five years ago the EU and its Member States could have implemented preventive measures. Today the EU and its Member States are confronting a serious crisis requiring massive human, capabilities and financial contributions, a European reform of the immigration policy and a serious commitment to cooperation at the European level all this under dire economic situation and unfriendly domestic electorate. The EU ought to liberalize immigration policy and open up legal routes for migrants. The EU and its Member States have quite a challenge in front them.
Last but not least, the most shocking line was made President Tusk right after the Council meeting, “Let me be clear. Europe did not cause this tragedy. But that does not mean we can be indifferent.” Was the summit about finger-pointing or about solving one of most pressing issues facing Europe? Such comment clearly illustrates Europe’s mindset in addressing this crisis.