The European response to the Mediterranean refugee crisis: an update

By Mirijam Beutke

2015 has seen record numbers of refugees attempting to cross into Europe by sea. By mid-April, over 21,000 had arrived in Italy and at least 1,720 refugees had died trying to reach European shores. Within one week alone, between 12 and 19 April, more than 1,000 refugees travelling primarily from Libya, drowned at sea. These people, fleeing war and poverty, come mainly from countries experiencing ongoing civil unrest, including Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan African countries such as Eritrea and Somalia.

The recent deaths at sea have sparked a major debate about how the European Union (EU) should respond to the humanitarian refugee dilemma. The United Nations called the current crisis in the Mediterranean ‘a tragedy of epic proportions’. While many social activist groups and NGOs kicked off campaigns for greater refugee protection and the expansion of rescue operations in the Mediterranean, drafting crisis reports, suggestions for action or conducting petitions addressed to the European Parliament and local governments. Suggestions for action include increased funding and equipment for rescue operations, or the creation of legal opportunities to reach Europe as an alternative to illegal border crossing. Many organisations claim that previous European attempts to handle the increasing number of refugees crossing into the EU were too narrowly considered. They claim that current refugee policies are only geared towards the protection of the EU’s external borders and keeping potential refugees from leaving African shores in the first place. As an alternative, organisations as diverse as UNHCR and Pro Asyl are demanding a European civil sea rescue service.

In October 2014, Italy decided, in agreement with the EU, to end the Italian Navy’s humanitarian search and rescue initiative, Operation Mare Nostrum, even though it had saved over 140,000 people’s lives at sea within one year of its period of application. The operation was aimed at rescuing refugees in distress at sea and arresting their traffickers. The rescue operation was called off because policy makers believed it to be an unintended pull factor – an incentive for more people to set off on the risky journey to Europe. Mare Nostrum was replaced by the EU’s Triton initiative in November 2014. The Triton initiative was limited, both in mandate and in resources: its budget was limited to 3 million euros per month, compared to the budget of Mare Nostrum which was 9 million euros. Moreover, Triton’s operating range is limited to only 30 miles off the Italian coast. Due to this limited operating range, most of the capsized ships don’t even fall within the Triton’s scope. According to the European border agency, Frontex, the focus of the joint operation Triton was ‘border management’ instead of ‘rescue service in international waters’.

The recent migrant deaths in the Mediterranean led European leaders to convene in an emergency summit in Brussels last month, where they debated on how the EU should respond to the refugee crisis. The President of the European Council Donald Tusk, who chaired the meeting, said the EU’s overriding priority was ‘to prevent more people from dying at sea’. By the end of the special summit the EU had agreed it would contribute more funding and equipment, such as extra ships and helicopters, to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean and to triple funding for the sea rescue operations aimed at rescuing migrant boats. The boost in funding brings spending back up to about the level of Mare Nostrum – to 120 million euros. Among the countries that pledged to send more naval vessels to the Mediterranean were Germany, France and Britain. An overall result of the meeting was the adoption of a controversial 10-point action plan, which aims to strengthen the EU’s presence at sea. The plan primarily aims to fight traffickers and to prevent ‘illegal migration flows’.

Migrant rescue at sea, photo by Maso Notarianni

Rescue in the Mediterranean, photo by Maso Notarianni under Creative Commons Licence

The outcome of the special meeting and, in particular, the action plan has been criticised by many social activists, international organisations and migration researchers. One of the main critiques entails the conceptual set-up of the European border agency Frontex. The Frontex agency is responsible for joint European border management, including control and surveillance of external borders, in order to strengthen border security by fighting ‘illegal’ immigration and traffickers. Frontex is very limited in agency, since it is neither equipped nor allowed to conduct such sea rescue operations. That means the stated priority – of saving lives through rescue services – cannot actually be fulfilled by the responsible European agency. Human rights organisations in particular criticise the current focus on border protection and securitisation which, they argue, originates from a concept based on military defence targeted against immigrants. Such critics demand that the border guard agency take a more active role in sea rescue services when lives are at risk.

Another main critique is the focus on the fight against smugglers and traffickers. Human smuggling and trafficking describes the act of ‘facilitation, transportation or illegal entry of persons across an international border’, with or without consent of the people concerned respectively. The fight against traffickers is aimed at preventing illegal border crossing in the first place. The 10-point action plan foresees a military and civilian mission to capture and destroy the traffickers’ rickety boats, before they even set off for the risky route to Europe. This considered military action against traffickers finds broad support among the member states. However, many NGOs and charities, including the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, claim that this strategy is likely to force refugees to take even more dangerous routes and fails to address the issues that motivate refugees to flee in the first place. Humanitarian and human rights organisations appear to have reached a consensus: that the refugee crisis would be better solved by creating more legal migration channels to Europe. This is echoed by intergovernmental organisations: in a joint statement issued by a the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR among others, it was stated that the current crisis in the Mediterranean could be better addressed by ‘creating sufficient channels for safe and regular migration’. The aid organisation Oxfam stated that ‘EU leaders have missed a real opportunity to make a serious difference in the lives and deaths of the people suffering daily in the Mediterranean’.

During the week following the disastrous happenings, the Italian coast guard reported on Sunday evening (3 May) that more than 5,800 migrants had been rescued throughout the weekend. Separately, the Greek Coast Guard said it had rescued another 530. It is one of the highest numbers of people ever rescued in a single day. The positive news is that this is due to the immediate reaction of the EU to step up sea rescue efforts after the humanitarian refugee disaster.

As the refugee surge continues, debate is growing in the EU about a lack of unified immigration policies and funding for refugee rescue operations. Tomorrow, the European Commission will introduce a European Agenda on Migration which will put forward key principles and actions in this area for 2015-2020. The new proposals include imposing refugee quotas on the 28 countries of the Union under a distribution system set by Brussels – forcing states to share the burden of the refugee crisis. The proposal with the new and biding rules for sharing the immigration and refugee burden is highly controversial and divisive. France and the new UK government see it as ‘unacceptable’, Hungary denounces the proposal as a ‘mad and unfair idea’, while the German government is highly in favour of it, since it is currently offering asylum to the highest number of refugees in the EU. Considering the diverse interests of the member states on migration and asylum policy, tomorrow’s attempt to adopt a united European approach is certainly an ambitious undertaking.

Mirijam is a migration researcher and practitioner who has worked in organisations and NGOs in Germany and the UK on labour migration, citizenship, migrants’ rights, refugee protection, discrimination and integration. She obtained her Masters in Migration Studies at the University of Sussex. She tweets here: @MirijamBeutke

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