There is something deeply wrong with Europe’s approach to irregular migrants. After the Mediterranean boat tragedy, which left more than 700 migrants dead, the European Commission has unveiled a ten-point action plan on migration. It has several good points, but it can only be the beginning.
On migration and asylum policy, a north-south divide runs through the EU. Under the Schengen treaty (to which the UK and Ireland are not parties), all members are responsible for securing the external borders of the Union. The premise is simple: in an area of free movement without borders, the migration problems of one member-state are the problems of the Union as a whole. But the EU has not had a common migration policy for twenty years.
Europe’s asylum system, known as the 'Dublin system', has caused friction within the Union. Under it, the EU member-state where a migrant first arrives is primarily responsible for processing an asylum application. This places an unreasonable burden on countries bordering conflict zones, such as Italy, Greece or Malta. These countries, overloaded with applications, turn down the overwhelming majority of them. So asylum seekers travel to other countries, such as Germany or Sweden. Here they have better chances of a successful application; but locals resent them as an increasing burden on social services. The system has created two different zones in Europe with two different interests: Northern member-states want an asylum policy that keeps migrants in the South but treats them humanely, while Southern member-states want the North to share the burden by accepting more migrants. The Mediterranean refugee crisis shows that this system is unsustainable.
When popular uprisings in Libya and Syria turned into bloody conflicts, tens of thousands of people started risking their lives on leaky boats to cross the Mediterranean rather than face an uncertain fate at home. Problems were compounded as smuggling networks exploited Libya’s lawlessness to create a new, lucrative path by which they could bring African migrants to the EU. The rickety smuggling ships often got into problems on the high seas, whether by accident or by design.
In October 2013, three years after the Arab uprisings started, the Italian government of then-prime minister Enrico Letta decided to launch a search-and-rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’. With a budget of 9 million euros per month, the Italian authorities patrolled both Italian and Libyan waters. Between October 2013 and October 2014 (when the operation was replaced by the EU-led ‘Triton’ mission), ‘Mare Nostrum’ helped save an estimated 150,000 lives and detained 351 smugglers. Still, the flow of migrants continued and scenes of overcrowded boats reaching Lampedusa became a symbol of Europe’s failed migration policies. According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 170,000 migrants reached Italy by sea in 2014.
In October 2014, the Italian government appealed for EU support. The Italian demand to strengthen ‘Mare Nostrum’ was met with criticism from Northern member-states, including the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. They argued that Italy had created a ‘pull effect’ by establishing a search-and-rescue operation. In their view, the prospect of being rescued at sea needlessly encouraged more migrants to attempt the crossing. Germany, France, Sweden and the UK are the top destinations for asylum seekers, and their governments face increasing domestic pressure to cut back on the numbers. The compromise that emerged from this north-south disagreement was operation ‘Triton’. This is an EU-led operation, with a more restricted mandate, budget and area of operations than ‘Mare Nostrum’. It has no mandate to proactively search and rescue boats in danger; it has a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros with a limited fleet of two aircraft, one helicopter, and six patrol vessels, and it only patrols Italian waters.
During the first three months of operation ‘Triton’ (end of October to end of December 2014), Frontex, the EU’s border agency, observed an increase in migrants of 160 per cent, compared with the same period of 2013, when the Italian rescue operation was still in place. Meanwhile, deaths in the Mediterranean have soared: more than 1,750 migrants have perished since the beginning of 2015, in comparison with 56 reported deaths in the same period of 2014. Since ‘Triton’ was established, more migrants have attempted to reach European soil, and many more have died trying. This suggests that other factors besides the ‘pull effect’ are leading migrants to board the ships.
These factors are mostly linked to foreign, not migration, policy. Since October 2014, the conflict in Libya has worsened; the country has fallen apart and the Islamic State terrorist group has joined the fight. Refugees en route to Europe have to run a lethal gauntlet in Libya: they are harassed, mistreated and sometimes killed by the warring factions. Yet the country’s chaos and its proximity to Europe make it a smuggler’s dream. The Boko Haram terrorist group in Nigeria, repression in Eritrea, and continued violence in Somalia create a steady flow of refugees from further afield. The flood of refugees from Syria’s civil war continues unabated, and many of them now reach Europe through Libya. Not all irregular migrants are refugees. Some are merely economic migrants. But Europe’s inability to manage these crises has prompted an increase in the number of irregular migrants. The possibility of potential terrorists hiding among legitimate refugees is another reason for the EU to take a serious, end-to-end view of the migration issue.
The Commission’s ten-point action plan is a step in the right direction. The Commission is right to push for an increase in Triton’s resources. European leaders should agree to a substantial increase not only of the operation’s budget but also its logistical resources. The mounting death toll shows that the available fleet and manpower are not enough. More helicopters, ships and surveillance assets are needed. Since there is no meaningful Libyan coast guard or navy, European governments should agree to expand the mandate of the operation and to allow it to patrol Libyan waters, as ‘Mare Nostrum’ did. Beyond increasing Triton’s capabilities, its mandate should be broadened to include assisting boats in trouble. This cannot be done within the existing mandate of Frontex, as the Commission suggests, since this is purely a border control agency. Reluctant governments should realise that over-emphasising the ‘pull effect’ is not only factually incorrect, but also morally indefensible.
The Commission has proposed capturing and destroying smuggling vessels, taking its cue from the EU’s counter-piracy mission Atalanta, which operates off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden. But migrant flows will not stop if the EU starts sinking old fishing boats. Such action will only increase the price a migrant has to pay to a smuggler for his passage to Europe.
Smugglers and pirates are not the same and cannot be defeated in the same way. While a military show of force may deter pirates, the prospect of special forces abseiling onto, or firing warning shots at, boats filled with desperate civilians is not one we should welcome. Part of the success of operation Atalanta was a result of attacking pirate hideouts on shore in Somalia. Smuggling networks, by contrast, are dispersed; those in charge may be in an internet-café in Bamako, Benghazi or Bari. Shutting them down requires effective intelligence and law-enforcement operations, not military intimidation.
The EU has suggested destroying boats before they are used for smuggling. This sounds tough, but how can one differentiate between a smuggling vessel and a legitimate trawler or merchant ship? Not every Libyan fisherman doubles as a people smuggler. And many smuggling boats embark from Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere; the EU cannot sink them all. The EU should certainly pre-empt imminent acts of smuggling – for instance, when it is clear that people are being loaded onto a boat – but getting the information in real time to enable such an operation would present a tremendous intelligence challenge.
There is a market for people smuggling, and European leaders must appreciate the dynamics of supply and demand. Europe should focus on the demand-side problems onshore; those factors that lead people to risk their lives on rusty boats in the first place. This means Europe should address Libya’s lawlessness and Syria’s civil war. In the absence of a functioning central government in Libya, the EU should establish a civil-military mission on the ground and create a safe zone where migrants could be processed. It should be set up initially in an area controlled by Libya’s internationally-recognised government, currently in exile in the east of the country. The Mediterranean crisis should force Europe to take more responsibility for preventing Libya's collapse.
The Commission’s action plan offers some timid ideas for the unsolved question of better burden- sharing in the EU’s asylum system: the Commission promises to “consider options for an emergency relocation mechanism”. This measure shows that the EU is slowly considering how to tackle the flaws in the Dublin system. Its latest reform, termed ‘Dublin-III’, has clearly not gone far enough. Europe’s leaders should be bolder. They should rethink the rule of first entry and ensure the effective implementation of all existing EU directives on asylum seekers. This would contribute to harmonising national asylum standards and distributing refugees more evenly across the EU.
Finally, the Commission’s action plan promises to “establish a new return programme for rapid return of irregular migrants”. This sounds good, but such a programme will not work without a functioning Libyan government that can negotiate the conditions of the return of migrants.
As the conflicts in Europe’s backyard continue, or intensify, more and more people will risk their lives to flee their countries. Turning a blind eye to the EU’s obligation to help those in need would neither be moral, nor coherent with the EU’s foreign policy interests. The domestic politics of migration are difficult for many member states, including the UK. Migration is a unifying issue for Europe's right-wing populist parties. But the current system, which creates problems and tension in many countries, does nothing to reduce the level of anti-migrant sentiment. As the EU’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopolous, puts it “if Europe does not present a united front to stop tragedies like this from happening, there will only be one winner: the populists.”
Camino Mortera-Martinez is a research fellow and Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
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