More than 1,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean in 10 days in April. These deaths were entirely predictable. They were also preventable. Last November, European leaders made the calculated decision to allow the number of drownings to increase by scrapping Mare Nostrum, the search and rescue operation funded by EU member states and run by the Italian navy and coastguard.
They claimed this would act as a deterrent. Word would get back to the war zones of Syria, Somalia and Eritrea – they hoped – that search and rescue operations had been halted. This would make people think twice before attempting to cross the Mediterranean and seek refuge in Europe.
They were wrong. The scrapping of search and rescue demonstrates a lack of understanding of how migration works, specifically the overriding strength of ‘push factors’ associated with military conflict. It also demonstrates an ignorance of the law. Far from being ‘illegal immigrants’, the vast majority of the people making the crossing have a legitimate legal claim under international law to refugee status in Europe.
Mare Nostrum (‘Our Seas’ in Italian) carried out over 400 rescues a year and rescued over 150,000 people – about 400 a day. This data was available and well publicised at the time Mare Nostrum was cancelled. The subsequent deaths were thus not unexpected and result directly from the scrapping of search and rescue and its replacement with a border security operation.
Mare Nostrum’s focus was clear. It was to find and rescue people making the sea crossing from North Africa to Italy. It had a €9 million monthly budget. It comprised several ferry-sized navy ships, helicopters, spotter planes, teams of doctors and interpreters. Crucially, it had a mandate to operate right up to the Libyan coastline.
To achieve the deterrent effect European leaders desired, Mare Nostrum’s replacement would need to be much less effective. This is exactly what they achieved with the Triton operation. Its budget was one third of Mare Nostrum’s and crucially it wasn’t a search and rescue operation. Triton had no mandate to actively go out looking for boats in distress. It could only operate within 30 miles of the Italian coast. People had to travel much further – and face much greater risk – before they could be rescued. Most of this year’s drownings, more than 3,000 by the time Red Pepper went to press, have taken place in Libyan waters, out of Triton’s reach.
This is what a ‘tough stance on immigration’ looks like. The deaths in the Mediterranean made UK political leaders seem heartless and crass. Whatever the public might think of immigration, most people didn’t want drowning to be the way it was stopped. Suddenly the migrant-bashing in the run up to the general election felt rather different. The Labour Party’s ‘Controls on Immigration’ election souvenir mug (£5 from the party website) looked in desperately poor taste. The Conservatives and Labour temporarily stopped trying to out-do UKIP on immigration. Cameron released a statement arguing that the language used by the media had dehumanised the people drowning in the Mediterranean. Even the Telegraph ran a comment piece arguing that the deaths were the result of UK policy. Both conveniently forgot that they had worked hand in hand to create a stream of anti‑migrant headlines and policies over the last few years.
Whether through their own sense of humanity, public outrage or a desire to distance themselves from the likes of UKIP, European leaders held a crisis meeting on the Mediterranean deaths. But they agreed a beefed up border security operation, demonstrating many of the same mistakes made by scrapping Mare Nostrum.
The new measures are focused on stopping people entering Europe. They do not aim to protect vulnerable people or deal with the crises they are fleeing. They have some good points, however, and these should not be ignored. Search and rescue operations will be increased. The UK has pledged military support to the rescue missions, and also presumably to the other security operations.
The headline action from the EU meeting was the targeting of people traffickers. Most people making the Mediterranean crossing have paid thousands of pounds to a trafficking organisation for their place on a boat. The EU’s new strategy is to destroy the boats used by the traffickers (presumably while they are not full of people) and, if possible, to catch and prosecute traffickers.
But destroying the traffickers’ boats will not stop people making the journey; if anything it will make these voyages even more dangerous. Tuesday Reitano of the Global Initiative Against Organised Crime told the IRIN news network: ‘We have evidence that there are now containers full of rubber dinghies being bought in Asia and shipped to Libya. The dinghies are less safe, and infinitely replaceable.’
Catching the traffickers will prove just as difficult. The kingpins are unlikely to be on board the boats, and their well‑organised networks reach back deep into the conflict zones people are fleeing.
The second leg of the new strategy is the speedy return of people who have made the crossings. This completely ignores the fact that most of them have a legal right to stay in Europe as refugees, a right that should be protected by international law.
The new proposals also say nothing about the crises people are fleeing or the need for stability in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and across North Africa – which, while not as engulfed by war, has provided fertile ground for trafficking operations. Nor does there seem to be any awareness of other unfolding crises that could drive yet more people toward the Mediterranean. Little attention has been paid to the unfolding situations in Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of them countries with huge numbers of internally displaced people looking for safety. More broadly, the media has paid little attention to the role played by European governments in creating the instability people are fleeing. And there has been almost no debate about how climate change might fuel further chaos.
Humanitarian agencies and human rights groups have proposed a more sensible and humane approach. They argue that rather than trying to stop people arriving through ramped-up security operations, we should create safe, legal routes for people to enter Europe.
This would mean increased refugee resettlement from places such as Syria, with European countries pledging to accept more refugees directly from these countries. According to the UN high commissioner for refugees, 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced in Syria, while more than three million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Fewer than 150,000 Syrians have managed to seek refuge in the European Union.
The creation of safe, legal routes into Europe would reduce the number of people making the dangerous crossing. At the same time it would cut the traffickers out of the loop. It would also mean northern European countries accepting refugees who are already living in Italy and Greece. This would share responsibility across the continent.
Of course, not everyone making the crossing fits neatly into the legal definition of a refugee. The solution here is to create new working visas allowing people to enter and work legally.
These options would be deeply unpopular with European governments. But the new operation in the Mediterranean is likely to fail, even on its own terms. Caught between the failure of their security operation and a rising death toll, they may eventually, reluctantly, be compelled to try a different approach.