Argument

Europe Passes the Buck While Thousands Die

How EU cost-cutting, continental infighting, and bureaucratic indifference turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard.

LAMPEDUSA, ITALY - JUNE 21:  A boat loaded with illegal immigrant is seen on  June 21, 2005 in Lampedusa, Italy. Tens of thousands of immigrants land on the Italian coast each year, most of them heading from north Africa on ramshackle boats.In the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia, Lampedusa Island is one of the main gateways for illegal immigration from Africa into Europe. According to a report by Amnesty International, Illegal immigrants who land in Italy consistently allege they have been abused, holding centres are overcrowded and no legal assistance is offered. Italian authorities refused to give access to the centres to enable further investigations by Amnesty. The Amnesty International report says 15,647 people were held in the centres in 2004: a 9 per-cent increase on the previous year. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
LAMPEDUSA, ITALY - JUNE 21: A boat loaded with illegal immigrant is seen on June 21, 2005 in Lampedusa, Italy. Tens of thousands of immigrants land on the Italian coast each year, most of them heading from north Africa on ramshackle boats.In the Mediterranean Sea between Malta and Tunisia, Lampedusa Island is one of the main gateways for illegal immigration from Africa into Europe. According to a report by Amnesty International, Illegal immigrants who land in Italy consistently allege they have been abused, holding centres are overcrowded and no legal assistance is offered. Italian authorities refused to give access to the centres to enable further investigations by Amnesty. The Amnesty International report says 15,647 people were held in the centres in 2004: a 9 per-cent increase on the previous year. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Rescuers have struggled to recover bodies from an April 19 shipwreck 60 miles off the Libyan coast and 120 miles south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. They have given up on finding survivors. Up to 900 men, women, and children are feared dead after the capsizing of their 65-foot vessel, which had embarked from Libya en route to Italy carrying migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and sub-Saharan Africa.

In the days after this tragedy, French President François Hollande condemned the “terrorists” who put migrants in “ships they know are rotten,” and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi denounced the human traffickers as “slave drivers of the 21st century.” Smugglers — who have developed a lucrative business exploiting the misery and despair of hundreds of thousands attempting to reach European shores — certainly deserve blame for this tragedy. But they also provide a convenient target for European politicians whose failed immigration policies and lack of willingness to address this crisis bear much responsibility.

European leaders must address this humanitarian disaster. This will necessitate reinforcing common European policies on migration, as well as mobilizing legal, political, and even military tools. But it must be done. As the European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, put it, the EU “has no longer any alibi.”

This tragedy was all too predictable. It has happened before: 366 migrants died when their boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013. And on April 12 of this year, just a week before the latest incident, 400 people drowned off the Libyan coast. According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly 3,300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean in 2014 and about 1,700 have so far in 2015, 30 times the number in the same period last year.

As the Middle East and North Africa remain mired in crisis, irregular migration is only expected to increase in years to come — and similar disasters will follow if policy doesn’t change. According to a recent report by Frontex, the EU agency responsible for Europe’s external border, the three countries that produced the largest number of refugees in 2013 were war-torn Syria and Afghanistan and authoritarian Eritrea. Adding to the crisis, the recent collapse of the Libyan state has provided a safe haven for smugglers. None of these problem countries shows signs of ameliorating anytime soon. And yet, European leaders have avoided confronting this increasing challenge, despite years of grim milestones. Not surprisingly, the Mediterranean Sea is witnessing “the worst massacre [it has] ever seen” according to Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency.

On Monday, April 20, the European Commission proposed 10 measures to address the refugee crisis, including reinforcing the budget and personnel of existing rescue operations, establishing means to systematically capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers, and developing an EU-wide program for resettlement, as well as deploying officers to gather intelligence on migratory flows and coordinate with migrants’ countries of origin. But what these proposals would actually entail if implemented is still unclear — and they still fall short of what Europe needs to do.

In the EU’s characteristically unhurried style, a new strategy for addressing the refugee crisis was supposed to have been presented by the European Commission this coming May, followed by a debate with interior and foreign affairs ministers from the European Union’s 28 member countries in mid-July. As one anonymous expert told the news site B2, this forthcoming policy was characterized by “deliberate cynicism” focused more on saving political face and keeping budgets down than saving lives. The coldhearted reality is even worse: European policy allows migrants to die in order to serve as a deterrent to future refugees seeking a better life in Europe.

European policy has not only abetted a humanitarian catastrophe, but it is proving incapable of stopping the flow of migrants. Programs to help address the crisis have been scrapped in recent years due to budget constraints, making the situation far worse. In November 2014, Italy abandoned Mare Nostrum, the Italian-run maritime search-and-rescue program introduced in 2013.

Mare Nostrum was credited with helping to rescue 140,000 people. But it was not without critics. Some complained that it introduced a “pull factor,” encouraging migrants to take the dangerous journey. In October 2014, Britain’s Conservative-led coalition government, which faces pressure from the Euroskeptic and anti-immigration UK Independence Party, announced it would not support any more search-and-rescue operations. Britain’s foreign minister said such operations create “an unintended ‘pull factor.’” (On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that his government had been wrong.)

The program that replaced Mare Nostrum, on Nov. 1, 2014, is called Triton, an EU-funded operation run by Frontex. But Triton’s budget is only a third of what Mare Nostrum’s was, and it operates on a more limited scope: Its mandate is to patrol borders rather than rescue vessels. Making matters worse, Frontex has seen its budget cut from 115 million euros to 85 million euros in 2014, despite the increase in illegal migration. The move from Mare Nostrum to Triton was criticized early on by human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, which said it is “bound to fail” because it focuses on the wrong objective. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees called this week for a “European Mare Nostrum,” a program funded and run by the EU that would have the same broad search-and-rescue mandate as the Italian program.

So far, Europe’s leaders have preferred to duck any serious debate on the increasing immigration pressure the continent is facing. The 1995 Schengen Agreement, which now ensures free circulation of goods and people among 26 of the EU’s 28 countries, faces criticism in member states with the rise of populist anti-immigration sentiment expressed by parties like the National Front in France or Pegida in Germany. And there is little appetite among increasingly Euroskeptic publics across the continent to defer more sovereignty to the European Union to solve these issues. It’s easy to blame the EU’s shortcomings for the immigration crisis, but state leaders conveniently forget to tell their voters that it’s the reluctance to fund European government that is responsible for the budget cuts and ineffective institutions that have resulted in the thousands of deaths of refugees.

Beyond the lack of funding and personnel, the EU’s immigration policy is dysfunctional because of its tangle of national and federal mechanisms. This is problematic because Lampedusa is not only Italy’s border — it is the whole continent’s. When asylum seekers and migrants are granted refugee status, they are able to move freely within the entire 26-country Schengen zone, but external border patrol is still the prerogative of individual member states. Countries like Italy and Greece are overwhelmed, while other countries like France or Britain have less incentive to address the problem and foot the bill. Everyone loses.

Similarly problematic is the EU’s asylum policy, as defined by Dublin II rules. This policy provides common guidelines for the treatment of asylum seekers, but leaves each state in charge of accepting asylum claims. It’s a bad system. A migrant can arrive in Italy and then apply for refugee status in Germany, but he has to stay in Italy while he waits for his asylum claim to be processed. And if Germany turns him down, it becomes Italy’s responsibility to send him back to his country of origin. Again, this works for no one. The Italians say the burden is unfairly put on them; the Germans say the Italians aren’t doing their job; and migrants are caught in the middle. Instead, the EU needs to harmonize its asylum policy and more evenly share responsibilities among countries.

In a statement on Monday, EU foreign-policy chief Mogherini called for a “true immigration policy” to fix these discrepancies. Unless the EU decides that it will do away with free travel in the Schengen zone (a step as dramatic as breaking up the euro currency zone), member states will have to come together to define a real common migration policy with appropriate instruments to regulate the flow of migrants among countries. This could include visa quotas distributed among EU states, a willingness to share responsibility for the resettlement of refugees, and a higher rate of acceptance of refugee claims. Today, only 5 percent of asylum seekers have their applications accepted, representing barely 1 percent of the non-European migrants to Europe.

Even if defining a better EU-wide approach to refugee acceptance is necessary, it will only solve part of the problem. Smugglers will continue boarding desperate souls fleeing wars in Syria or elsewhere onto shoddy ships and sending them into perilous waters. This is why the EU should also directly target the smugglers and their ships along the Libyan border.

The European Commission suggested a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) operation in its 10 propositions on Monday, but the operation still has to be approved unanimously in order to become a real policy. If history is any guide, CSDP operations can be excruciatingly slow to deploy. The EU is notoriously reluctant to use hard-power instruments. And CSDP operations require unanimous consent among all 28 EU members and international legal backing. But the tools for such a military operation already exist. A useful precedent is the successful EU maritime civil-military operation Atalanta, which was deployed in the Horn of Africa to fight pirates. Backed by a United Nations resolution, the EU has been protecting commercial ships from Somali pirates since 2009. It has worked. Something similar could be done off the Libyan coast.

There will be no quick fix to Europe’s migration challenge. And a real long-term solution to stemming the flow of migrants will require improved political and economic conditions in their countries of departure. But the EU has a variety of tools it could use to improve its response to the current crisis, save lives, and introduce a more comprehensive refugee resettlement strategy. To do this, though, member states will have to find the collective political will to develop a strategy and reach consensus. If, once again, this latest tragedy leads only to commiserating comments but little action, the Mediterranean Sea will only add bodies to its watery mass grave.

Photo credit: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

Corrections, April 23, 2015: The shipwreck in which 400 people drowned occurred on April 12, not April 15, as originally stated in this article. According to the International Organization for Migration, nearly 3,300 migrants perished in the Mediterranean in 2014, not at least 3,500, as originally stated. The number of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean so far in 2015 (as of April 21) — about 1,700 people — is 30 times the number in the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. This article originally said the number to date was 10 times the number in the same period last year — a figure that applies to the first three months of 2015. The news site B2 is not affiliated with the European Union; this article originally stated that it was an “EU news site.”

Benjamin Haddad is a fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

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