September 22, 2014
Until the end of 2013 ships that were operating in civil capacity were forbidden according to Italian law to come to the aid of refugee boats in dire straits. If, let’s say, a fisherman boat were to sight one of those notorious unseaworthy but still helplessly overcrowded boats, it would veer away and abandon its passangers to their fate. Following the tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013 with around 360 dead refugees, the Italian government changed those laws and initated the operation “Mare Nostrum” to actively watch out for and rescue troubled boats. By its own account the Italien coast guard in the first half of this year has brang around 65’000 people safely ashore.
Last week saw yet another two major catastrophes in the Mediterranean. Near Malta, smugglers deliberately dumped a boat carrying around 500 migrants. Only a few of which survived. It has been the most fatal catastrophe in the Mediterranean in recent years. A day earlier, another boat carrying around 200 passengers sank off the coast of Libya. Only 36 people were rescued.
Both tragedies caught the headlines of international media outlets. What has less attracted their attention are fatalities of comparably minor incidents. Between the beginning of 2014 and the end of August 2’000 people did not survive the passage to Europe, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Many of those accidents did happen within European waters and some of which are murderous acts by criminal smugglers. Still, Europe shares a joint responsibility for these deaths. While nobody is expecting the EU and its member states to patrol in foreign waters to try and rescue as much troubled migrants as possible, it can provide for measures to keep refugees from embarking on the dangerous journey in the first place.
For years, refugee organisation have been calling for legal and safe routes for migrantes to get to Europe and seek asylum. After the tragedy of Lampedusa, even the EU commissioner in charge of this issue, Cecilia Malmström, joined this claim and reiterated it following last week’s tragedies.
But for that claim to become a reality requires a fundemantal rethinking, if not an intellectual revolution among European policymakers. Contrary to the change of attitude in Italy and the EU Commission after Lampedusa, most national governments have yet to see the reason that the ongoing massive flow of refugees can be dealt with by simply repelling them. If it was for them to decide, refugees should be kept outside EU soil – by all means, which obviously does not help to solve the problem at all.
What the EU needs is reinvention of its migration policy – a policy that meets Europe’s humanitarian obligations and dignifies the right to seek asylum as an inalienable human right. First and foremost, there have to be safe and legal corridors into the EU that provide migrants with a better alternative and keep them from entering unseaworthy boats, paying enormous amounts of money to nasty criminals and risking their lifes in the dangerous floods of the Mediterranean.
Furthermore, there has to be an effective way to allocate the incoming refugees all over the EU and not leave the member states on the borders alone with this task. Even a rather big EU member states like Italy will be stretched to its limits by carrying for 65’000 incoming refugees every six months – let alone countries like Malta.
Such an allocation of sharing of the effort is not possible today due to the so-called Dublin rule that requires every EU member state to take care for and the deal with the migrants, which enters the own country in the first place. The Dublin rule is a sacred cow of sorts for all those member states that do not share a part of the EU’s external frontier.
Furthermore, with the new Commission a humanitarian approach towards migration policy might even take a step backwards. Ms Malmström is handing over her responibilites for this issue to Dimitris Avramopoulos. In his mission letter, President Jean-Claude Juncker does not lose a word on either legal and safe corridors or a rejection of the Dublin rule.
Also the statements of the incoming President of the Commission does not provide for any reason to hope. His solution for the problem is the campaign against criminal smugglers and the establishment of peace and prosperity in today’s regions of conflict to keep people from escaping in the first place. Needless to say, In the longrun this will be the right approach, but the urgent problem, the constant dying in the Mediterranean, won’t be solved by those measures.
As of today the situation is likely to get even worse. With ongoing conflicts in northern and central Africa, ever more refugees head for the coast. Adding to that are more migrants from Middle East that regard the Mediterranean as the only way towards a supposedly better future in Europe. At the same time, the country with the largest number of migrant departures, Libya, is on the brink of a major escalation of its civil war, which would leave its coast without any guarding controls, whatsoever.
As long as the European Union and its member states do not rethink their migration policy, the Mediterranean will continue to be the place for tragic calamities and possibly thousands of dead people – people that pay for their hope to escape the dire needs in their homelands with their lifes. Europe could and should prevent that from happening.