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Why Europe’s Migrant Tragedy Is a Political Crisis

Europe's political project lies at the heart of the current migrant crisis.

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When some 800 people — the exact number remains unclear — drowned this weekend aboard a ramshackle vessel attempting to smuggle refugees from Libya to Italy, they ran into what has become Europe’s deadliest border control.

In Europe’s ongoing quest to reinforce its borders and keep migrants out, the Mediterranean Sea has emerged as its latest, though not particularly effective, tool to control the flow of people into the continent. In recent years, Europe has significantly hardened its land borders, and given increased political instability and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, the Mediterranean has become the most popular point of crossing for the hundreds of thousands seeking to escape violence, poverty, and persecution.

So far this year, more than 1,500 people have died while attempting the crossing from Libya to Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental body. Data provided to the IOM by the Italian Interior Ministry indicates that some 170,000 migrants arrived to Italy by sea last year.

Many European leaders emphasize that the Syrian civil war and the disintegration of the Libyan state are the key drivers of the crisis. Yet the story of Europe’s migrant catastrophe is one that also has roots in the European political project — the process of EU enlargement, the creation of a common market, and the dismantling of internal borders — that has defined the continent’s postwar history.

Key to understanding this political dynamic is the Schengen Agreement, which abolished many of Europe’s internal borders and allowed for free travel among its member states. In allowing for free travel within Europe, Schengen also led to a perceived need for Europe’s external borders to be hardened in places such as Greece, Bulgaria, Spain, and Italy. These are the front lines of Europe’s migrant crisis, and it is there where the European political project is struggling to cope with a flood of refugees and migrants.

The border between Bulgaria and Turkey, for example, had been a popular crossing point for migrants seeking to leave the Middle East for Europe — that is, until Bulgaria built a sprawling border fence with EU funding. Bulgaria currently isn’t a Schengen member, but would very much like to be. Convincing European leaders that it is able to control its border with Turkey is a key requirement for joining the visa-free regime.

But this attempt at border control is somewhat akin to a man squeezing a balloon in an attempt to control its contents. The Bulgarian fence was only built after Greece hardened its border with Turkey, causing migrants to shift their routes into Bulgaria. Now that Bulgaria is now longer as accessible, more migrants are relying on the Mediterranean.

The history of Europe can often be read as a constant, failed attempt at border control — consider the many successful attempts at crossing one of the most heavily fortified borders of all time, the Berlin Wall — and few such efforts seem quite as quixotic as controlling the flow of people and boats across the Mediterranean.

Nonetheless, the European Union is currently trying to do so — with a maritime mission that critics contend is both under-resourced and fails to take into sufficient account the safety of migrants. After the October 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, when some 350 people lost their lives after a migrant vessel capsized, the Italian government launched an ambitious search-and-rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea. That expensive undertaking was replaced by a far more modest EU mission, Triton, that European leaders are now pledging to grant more resources. Triton, however, is not primarily a search-and-rescue mission and has as its focus border control and stopping smuggling.

But even as Europe has deployed its warships into the Mediterranean, mass drownings keep occurring, and there is growing public outrage over the continent’s inaction in its attempt to save migrant lives. The most recent tragedy is being increasingly described as an act of “mass murder,” and a viral photo circulating on Twitter photoshops an image of world leaders attending a Charlie Hebdo solidarity march onto the kind of rubber dinghy in which many migrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean:

That image is a salient piece of commentary on the current state of European politics, in which fears of terrorism have all but eliminated the possibility of a more liberal immigration regime. Several Syrians are reported to have been on board the vessel that sunk this weekend, and European officials are terrified that fighters who have participated in that conflict will return to Europe to carry out attacks.

To further underscore how the crisis in the Mediterranean has become a political phenomenon, many European leaders are loath to ease immigration restrictions given the many right-wing political parties who have made legislative gains on the back of aggressive anti-immigrant platforms.

But given the most recent tragedy are there any possible avenues for reform? The so-called “Dublin regulation,” which mandates that asylum seekers must file their petition for such protection in the first member states where they arrive is a much criticized aspect of EU immigration law. Because of their proximity to the Middle East, that rule has handed the southern European states a greater burden of asylum cases, and one could envision a reformed EU immigration system that sets quotas for the distribution of asylum-seekers around the union.

Another possibility is for the EU to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland and the United States in some Central American countries and allow for the processing of asylum applications at its embassies abroad. Such a system would expose asylum-seekers under the threat of violence or retaliation many risks, but could help decrease the flow of migrants.

This weekend’s shipwreck was one of the deadliest in the Mediterranean’s history, but the migrants so far show no sign of stopping their journey. The Italian Navy reportedly rescued another 446 migrants on Tuesday.

ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering cyberspace and its conflicts and controversies. He has written for the magazine since 2012 and is a graduate of Harvard University. @eliasgroll

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