How much is a human life worth? How many more people have to die to generate enough momentum for Europe to intervene? Unfortunately these are not rhetorical questions. More than 1,500 people have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean on their way from North Africa since the start of 2015.
Many Europeans are wondering how much longer Europe can ignore the tragedy unfolding on its doorstep while politicians and policy makers weigh up the political and economic cost of saving lives at sea.
Italy has argued that its search and rescue Mare Nostrum operation, which saved 150,000 asylum seekers and migrants in 12 months at an estimated cost of €9m a month was economically unsustainable to run.
Mare Nostrum was duly replaced by the Frontex-led Triton operation. This scaled-back programme, which had originally been conceived to support Mare Nostrum and ended up replacing it, only stretched to 30 miles off European coastlines at a cost of roughly one third of the programme it replaced. EU officials argued Triton would deliver better value for money – but, tragically, you get what you pay for. Triton is certainly smaller in scale and has a narrower mandate – to police and monitor European sea borders rather than carry out rescue operations including in international waters. But with so many dead already this year, is the political sustainability of Triton now to be called into question?
The latest tragedy may trigger enough of an EU-wide sense of indignation to create the political support needed for a new search and rescue operation similar to Mare Nostrum. Such an operation should see a substantial involvement of the EU and of EU member states – not just Italy, Latvia, Malta, Iceland and a few others.
Where is the EU’s response?
The EU has substantial resources, but member states have so far failed to agree a common strategy to respond to Mediterranean irregular crossings that are turning the sea into a mass graveyard. The response from Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi – to call for an emergency meeting of the European Council – is a start but it remains to be seen if this time he can mobilise the support of the big EU players.
In particular he must overcome the past striking silence of France, the timid support of Germany and open opposition of the UK. Several previous attempts have failed. However, this time the Italian PM can count on the support of Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief and former Italian foreign minister in Renzi’s cabinet. The death toll of drownings this year now stands at 30 times higher than at the same point in 2014 when Mare Nostrum was still active, so a new enhanced version would certainly help to save lives.
Some, like UK prime minister David Cameron, have argued that search and rescue operations are a “pull factor” for people to attempt to make crossings, ultimately also causing more migrants to die. However both the current level of migrant arrivals and the death toll among those who never make it prove he was wrong and that migration flows have multiple causes.
However, it is also clear also that rescue operations alone won’t offer a long-term solution to irregular crossings in the Mediterranean, as they do nothing to address the root causes of migration in the region, and a comprehensive EU strategy is needed.
As Mogherini recently reaffirmed, stabilisation of the long corridor that goes from Libya to Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq should be the priority for such a strategy. But the situation in the Horn of Africa, a decade-long war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and violent insurgencies in Nigeria and Mali also contribute to large movements of population that increase the flows across the Mediterranean.
To start with, the EU should focus on Libya where the end of Gaddafi’s regime left a power void. Sarkozy’s France and Cameron’s UK were as keen in leading the international military campaign to oust Gaddafi as they are now reluctant to deal with the consequences of their bombs. The ongoing civil war has torn apart communities and devastated the economy, leaving ample opportunities for human smugglers. This is unlikely to get better any time soon and boats will continue to depart from Libya for the foreseeable future.
From a EU perspective, it may prove more effective in the short term to look to Libya’s relatively more stable neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt, to help in patrolling the North African coast and intercepting boats – and perhaps the proposed EU-run migrant and asylum processing centres could be established in those countries.
These could then be used for screening of intercepted boat migrants, allowing those with a valid asylum case (which was more than 80% of those rescued during Mare Nostrum) to be resettled in an EU country.
The processing centres could also operate as job centres where recruitment opportunities both in Europe and in EU-funded initiatives in the region for migrants would be available. Such a solution would facilitate regular mobility for some – but it is hard to imagine that this would offer a solution for many as it assumes a static understanding of the job market and the willingness of employers to subject themselves to more scrutiny – which would inevitably reduce opportunities for exploiting cheap undocumented labour.
Whatever solutions are implemented, some people are still likely to try their luck with smugglers – so a second line of interception closer to the EU shore would be needed. This should resemble Mare Nostrum but under a concerted EU leadership. Once boats are detected in EU waters or in international waters in case of need, they should be taken to shore but rather than ending up in Italian reception centres, migrants should be taken to EU-led centres in the closer EU member states with national and international personnel.
These centres would operate as a tertiary filter for migrants. This would mean saving lives but would offer no guarantee of a right to stay. But rather than envisaging mass repatriation schemes, not least because they are extremely costly and hard to implement, it may prove more economically beneficial to Europe to establish a system of temporary residence permits with right to look for work and, for sake of minimising internal political opposition, limited access or no to welfare provision.
While not free from risks of exploitation, such a system would give people a chance to demonstrate their entrepreneurship and willingness to work and contribute to Europe’s ageing societies.