The European Union and the migratory tragedies in the Mediterranean

By: Amicie Duplaquet

The tragic sinking of a cargo ship near to the Libyan coast, on April 19, had caused the death of more than eight hundred migrants and projected the migration issue at the center of European news. On board were many Syrians who were trying to rebuild their lives away from the fighting of the civil war, but also Eritreans and Somalis. All had embarked the day before in Tripoli, often after a wait of several months in substandard hotels provided by the smugglers. These migrants had submitted their savings and their lives in the hands of these unscrupulous smugglers, for who the stagnation of the Syrian revolt and the other regional conflicts constitute a financial windfall. Since 2011, four million Syrians have fled their country and only 217,724 of them were able to find asylum in Europe. The migratory pressure is increasing and if Europe continues to ignore it the tragedies will continue in the Mediterranean.

In an emergency, the heads of states and governments of the European Union have met in Brussels on April 23 to outline a response to the increase of these dramas. No long-term solution was provided in this summit which only strengthened the Triton operation. This surveillance mission of the maritime borders of the EU, led by the European agency Frontex, will soon see its budget tripled and many countries have already provided new material means.

However, the Triton operation was unable to prove its effectiveness since its launch in November 2014. Its priority is border surveillance of European waters and not rescuing distressed migrants. Since its launch a few months ago, Amnesty International said that the mission would be « doomed to failure » and that its « objective is mistaken, » hoping that drowning would discourage future migrants. Over the past four months, 1,750 migrants died in the Mediterranean, thirty times more than in 2014 at the same period. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) speaks of a « hecatomb never seen in the Mediterranean » to qualify the spring 2015. Conversely, the mission « Mare Nostrum », which preceded Triton from October 2013 to October 2014, aimed to rescue the migrants beyond European waters. Within a year, Mare Nostrum helped to save 150,000 lives and to stop around 350 smugglers.

The other particularity of the mission Mare Nostrum is that it was conducted by the Italian Navy, unlike Triton which is organized by Frontex. However, the European agency Frontex is the subject of numerous critics, including from the Migreurop network which accuses him of not respecting the human rights of migrants. According to the head of this network, Frontex prevent migrants arriving on European territory, by repressing or by intercepting them, so they can not have the right of asylum nevertheless imposed on all members of the Union.

The decision of the EU on 23 April to strengthen Triton operation, under the guidance of Frontex, appears both disappointing and inappropriate to face the increasing migratory pressure. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a half million migrants will try to reach Europe via the Mediterranean this year. Moreover, the deterioration of the security situations in Syria, Libya and the Sahel countries suggest that Europe will be subjected to an actual migration issue in the coming years. However, the EU has chosen last week to strengthen a strategy that has already shown its limitations, rather than trying to rethink its immigration policy. It appears nevertheless naive to imagine that these decisions could deter people fleeing conflict and violations of human rights to attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, strongly criticized, after the summit, the absence of new measures and the passivity of Heads of States and European governments toward this migration crisis in the Mediterranean. In Strasbourg, a few days later, he asked the countries to promote legal immigration to avoid new dramas. He also advocated a fair European policy in support of migrants through a quota system. This last point should be among the proposals to be presented by the European Commission on May 13, as part of the adoption of a strategy for migration and asylum. The Union must be bold in writing this text because it is all its immigration policy in the Mediterranean which deserves to be rethinking.