We will be rich together or we will drown together: Can Europe stop migrants dying in the Mediterranean?

May 14, 2014
Around 250 migrants are hoisted onto a landing craft of an Italian Navy ship after being rescued in the Mediterranean between Italy and Libya Giorgio Perottino Reuters

By  Nayanka Perdigao

At least 1,750 people have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean en route to Europe, a 20-fold increase from the same period in 2014 when 96 people died. The latest deaths in Sicily, Italy occurred just as naval chiefs from 26 European countries were convening to discuss the migrant crisis in Naples, southern Italy. This recent series of deaths at sea and inflow of migrants not only highlights the challenges faced by the so called ‘frontier states’ Italy, Spain Greece among others but have also prompted fresh calls for the European Union to reinstate the full-scale search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Last October, the EU opted not to replace the Italian-run operation Mare Nostrum, which saved about 100,000 lives last year, amid fears of budget constraints and that it was encouraging smugglers and migrants to organise more trips to Europe.  Italy’s proximity to Africa has meant that it is at the frontline of the migrant crisis.

The causes behind the migration of people are varied, but it is escaping poverty, war in some African and East Asian countries and hopes of a better life that are in essence dictating migration trends to Europe. The number of illegal border-crossing detections in the EU surged in 2011, as thousands of Tunisians started to arrive at the Italian island of Lampedusa, following the onset of the Arab Spring. Sub-Saharan Africans who had previously migrated to Libya followed in 2011–2012, fleeing unrest in the post-Qaddafi era. The most recent surge in detections along the EU's maritime borders has been attributed to the growing numbers of Syrian and Eritrean refugees and instability in Libya.

From news reports and interviews with survivors, it is clear that migrants understand the risks involved with crossing the sea, yet they see the trip as a last resort to escape worse scenarios at home. Migrants are not only economically motivated, but many are refugees fleeing terrible conflicts or violent settings where torture and violence are common. They're seeking a better life, but many are exploited by the ruthless smugglers who organise the voyages for their own economic gains.

As a response the European Union had set up its own programme, Triton which ultimately had to rely on member states for vessels and surveillance equipment.  There has been a significant lack of coordination from member states on how best to deal with the crisis looming at their door step. There seems to be some fear and panic at the thought of welcoming ‘foreigners’ into Europe.  

As franco-senegalese writer Fatou Diome points out, the contradictory attitude of the rich countries vis-à -vis their immigration policies should be denounced. Fatou notes how the movement of people from the Developing World is unwelcomed in Europe simply because they have the ‘wrong’ passport and are seen as potential security threats. She argues that actually the West only gets upset when the poor are knocking on their door yet the influx of European migrants to Africa is not discussed at all.

Historically, the European Union's collective response to its growing migrant crisis has been ad hoc and more focused on securing the bloc's borders than on protecting the rights of migrants and refugees. Recent criticisms over the responses from member states have been pushing the EU and frontier states to genuinely discuss this ongoing challenge. The EU member states hardest hit by the economic crisis are in effect Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain and these have also served as the main points of entry for migrants and refugees because of their proximity to the Mediterranean Basin.

These countries are the ones bearing a heavy burden and have consistently asked for more support from the other EU member states. The Dublin Regulation still stipulates that asylum seekers must remain in the first European country they enter. Any migrant that travels to other countries in Europe face deportation back to the EU country they originally entered.

The recent spate of deaths on the sea and the continuous reports in the media about migrant’s attempts to reach Europe has led to EU member states shambling to urgently find adequate responses. The latest development coming from the EU is vouching for military campaigns intended to smash the migrant smuggling networks operating out of Libya. This potentially includes options for special ground forces on Libyan territory for intelligence gathering, boarding teams; patrol units air and maritime among others. Up to 10 EU countries have volunteered to take part in the campaign including Italy, which would command it, Britain, France, and Spain.

This new campaign, may for now, tackle the challenge posed by smugglers who in essence, sell false promises and take advantage of the misery of migrants. The recent incidence has brought the limelight back onto people smugglers and human traffickers as the main culprits. This is important to consider, however smugglers are only part of the problem and in fact catering to the West’s unregulated market of illegal workers. European states seem to focus solely on half of the problem and ignore the fact that there is high demand for workers who accept to work under horrible conditions for very low wages.

The migrant crisis will not go away as long as EU member states continue to militarise responses and tackle the issue as a ‘national security threat’ rather than coordinate an international joint driven approach. The EU’s very core values of protecting Human Rights and promoting human life seem to be completely bypassed due to some deep-seated fear of foreigners. As long EU states refuse to take an encompassing approach and continue to see the problem as a one sided issue, as Fatou Diome said ‘we will be rich together or we will drown together’.

About the Author:
Nayanka Paquete Perdigao is currently a Research Assistant with the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London and also a PhD student at SOAS, University of London

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