Hundreds of people trying to migrate from Africa to Europe have been drowned this week, when the boats they were travelling in sank. Here Tanja Müller says more needs to be done and that European policies have contributed to the deaths.
It has become a defining feature of European asylum and migration policy in recent years: boats full to bursting with desperate people trying to reach what they regard as the promised land of European shores. Some years ago the public was shocked by pictures of half-starved and dehydrated African refugees who had come ashore amongst holiday-makers on Italian islands. Nowadays, shock only seems to set in when hundreds of refugees drown, as happened in one of the latest incidents on 19 April, in which more than 700 people are feared dead. Carlotta Sami, spokesperson for the UNHCR, called it one of the greatest tragedies in the Mediterranean in an interview with Italian TV. Some days earlier around 400 people went missing on the same route. Most boat journeys start in Libya, where thousands of people wait for their turn to get on one of these deadly boats. The Libyan capital Tripoli is only around 300 kilometres away from the Italian island of Lampedusa, and now weather-wise is one of the better periods to cross – theoretically. Not that those who put refugees on unseaworthy boats care or even listen to weather forecasts.
The EU and its institutions know all this. The civil servants who work at the European border security mission FRONTEX count every refugee boat as well as those who cross Europe’s land borders illegally. Since 2013 FRONTEX spent hundreds of millions of Euros on drones and satellites in order to supervise the EU’s borders. The EU thus is clearly aware of what happens at its borders. In fact, it analyses what is happening in the near and far abroad in detail. Thus when boats are left to drown because of a lack resources at sea, this is not mere negligence.
Of course it is easy to blame politicians and even easier to blame EU institutions. But what about the general public and the voters who elect the governments that formulate national and EU policy? In the forthcoming British election, anti-immigration themes feature among most major parties. British political engagement to the deaths in the Mediterranean is almost absent. This makes ‘us’ silent accomplices of what might one day be called the greatest crime in the post-second-world-war-world by future historians.
The humanitarian catastrophe and mass murder of refugees at sea is ultimately a direct consequence of EU politics – even if actual deaths are also caused by smugglers who in the past have looked refugees in below deck or thrown them overboard. The European Charter for Human Rights promises protection to those who flee war and persecution. But this promise has become hollow. In order to claim asylum or seek refugee, one needs to have arrived on European soil. This in turn is made almost impossible by the various security installations around fortress Europe – in fact a perverseness of any asylum and refugee policy.
In the aftermath of events like the recent deaths, soul-searching among politicians comes to the fore, not for the first time. Who remembers Lampedusa in October 2013? In what was then the worst ‘tragedy’, an estimated 400 refugees mainly form Eritrea and Somalia on their way from Misrata in Libya to Lampedusa had died. Then as now this started a heated debate within Europe about refugee policy. The Lampedusa tragedy also triggered an almost immediate response by Italy: Mare Nostrum, an operation by the Italian marine and coastguards in order to save refugees at sea (and at the same time arrest the smugglers behind the lucrative trade). Mare Nostrum could have been the start of a shift in EU thinking and acting. Instead, it had to be terminated in October 2014 due to the unwillingness of relevant EU institutions to resource it properly. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Triton, a FRONTEX operation with a rather small budget and a different ideological underpinning: Triton’s main focus is not the rescue of refugees, but the securitisation of EU borders. Thus the chance to put people who flee destitution at the centre of the EU response, as would befit a Nobel Laureate, was wasted.
What will happen this time around as a response to the almost daily reports of new deaths at sea? The crises from which many of those who end up on boats in the Mediterranean flee show no signs of abating. According to UNHCR, in this year alone already 35,000 people embarked on a journey across the Mediterranean (the total number for 2014 was 210,000). Will European governments continue to lament each tragic incident while clinging to the politics of securitisation and deterrent?
A more enlightened policy is still possible, and UNHCR, IOM, and other organisations dealing with refugees and migrants have suggested steps into such a direction for many years. Those could include the re-institution of something in the spirit of Mare Nostrum, an operation aimed at saving lives and not geared FRONTEX-like toward deterrent. The EU could follow Switzerland in providing the possibility of asylum applications in embassies locally. Responsibility for refugees needs to be shared among all EU countries and not left mainly to those on whose borders refugees arrive – in short, asylum procedures need to be made worth the name again. In addition, the EU needs to redefine itself as an immigration continent. It needs regulations for those who come and seek work and a better life, a quest more often than not related to the fall-out of misguided EU development policy. There need to be legal ways to travel to the EU – only that will erase the lucrative business of people smugglers. And finally and probably most important of all: EU politicians need to defend the right to protection of those who are persecuted towards their electorates – instead of letting them die wilfully.