Opting out of Mediterranean rescue condemns desperate migrants to death

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

[This article was originally published on The Conversation, 29 October 2014]

Strait_of_gibraltarThe UK government is seeking to defend its decision not to support rescue missions for migrants making the dangerous crossing to Europe via the central Mediterranean. And even though Europe professes to be stepping up to the plate, the emphasis is now being placed on monitoring European waters rather than actually helping those in trouble. Unless all of Europe faces what is, in reality, a shared problem, many more tragic deaths are likely to follow the thousands that have occurred in the past few years.

According to a recent report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 3,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014 alone. Before then, in October 2013, 366 migrants drowned in a single incident when a boat taking them from Libya to Italy sank off the coast of the island of Lampedusa. As the IOM report shows, Europe has become “the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world”.

In the immediate aftermath of the Lampedusa tragedy, the Italian government launched Operation Mare Nostrum, which has seen the Italian Navy rescue well over 100,000 migrants from the sea. But while the operation has been commended as “a great humanitarian success” by the UN refugee agency, it has had significant economic and political costs. Reports on the future of Mare Nostrum are unclear but there have been suggestions that it will be either shut down or significantly downsized.

In any event, the Italian authorities have repeatedly warned EU partners that the country could not carry the €10 million monthly cost of the programme alone. A European-wide programme called Triton has emerged as a result but this is a very different operation.

Although Frontex, the agency in charge of Triton has reported being overwhelmed with offers of equipment to help it in its work, it has a significantly smaller budget and a much narrower remit. Triton is charged only with border control rather than rescue (including in international waters). This has led to fears that migrants will be left to drown off European shores.

Where’s the solidarity?

The UK has publicly spelled out why it is not prepared to support a search and rescue operation like Mare Nostrum. It argues the operation created an unintended “pull factor” and encouraged more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing in the knowledge that they would be rescued.

But while it is possible that Mare Nostrum has had a marginal pull, the UK Foreign Office has mistaken causes and means of migration in its criticism. As well known in migration scholarship, migration routes change over time, adapting to opportunities and policy openings. Closing down the route across the central Mediterranean is unlikely to reduce the overall number of migrants seeking to reach Europe as it does nothing to address the causes of migration, instead it will merely force them to pursue different and possibly even more dangerous routes.

As the British Refugee Council has pointed out: “The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War”. People will not stop trying to escape unlivable lives in their own countries in the hope of something better in Europe and we have already seen that thousands think it’s worth the risk. If we stop rescuing migrants, others won’t be deterred and even more are likely to die.

The Conversation

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Whose sea? Mare Nostrum and the politics of migration in the Med

By Nando Sigona, University of Birmingham

Cemetery of migrant boats in Capo Passero, Sicily. Photo by Nando Sigona

Cemetery of migrant boats in Capo Passero, Sicily. Photo by Nando Sigona

Thirty lifeless bodies found in the bow of a fishing boat carrying 600 migrants off the coast of Sicily have reignited the debate on illegal crossings in the Mediterranean and how the EU should respond. The Italian navy is facing an unprecedented flow of migrants across the sea, with the number intercepted in first half of 2014 already outnumbering those of the past year and at levels seen in 2011 during the Arab Spring.

To offset the moral panic that pervades this debate, it would be useful for everyone involved to remember that the high number of interceptions is not per se an indicator of an increasing number of illegal crossings and even less and indication of the number of irregular migrants in the EU. While a correlation can’t be categorically denied, the relationship may be less direct that many assume.

It is evident that the militarisation of the Mediterranean and the increasing patrolling of the sea by European navies, drones and satellites following the political turmoil and regime change in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia have had an impact on the likelihood of a migrant boat being detected. (This is not to deny the impact of weakened control on exit in countries such as Libya since the fall of the Gaddafi regime.)

The rise of FRONTEX

The reinvigorated action of FRONTEX, the European Agency for the Management of External Borders, has also contributed to the phenomenon. By feeding politicians and media with detailed statistics, first-hand accounts, close-up images, and scrupulously documented annual reports, FRONTEX has given an EU-wide profile to what used to be seen as a local, sporadic phenomenon.

Making illegal crossings a European, rather than a national, “problem” can serve multiple agendas. It can promote a sense of EU solidarity currently under threat by the re-emergence of nationalist discourses from Eurosceptic parties.

At a more basic level, it helps FRONTEX demonstrate value for money to the governments that have been generously funding the agency in the past few years. The organisation’s budget has rocketed from €6.3m in 2005, to nearly €42m in 2007, topping €94m by 2013. The newly appointed president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker has named a further budget increase as one of his top priorities.

Mare Nostrum

The current upsurge of interceptions also has a more specific cause: operation Mare Nostrum (Our Sea, in Latin). This is a rescue and military operation led by the Italian navy, launched in October 2013 in response to the tragic deaths of more than 360 people after a migrant boat sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. International outcry and the direct intervention of Pope Francis I, who declared the event a “disgrace”, provided the impetus for the Italian government to intervene.

Thousands of migrants brought to safe shores in the past months certainly make Mare Nostrum a “great humanitarian success”, as recently pointed out by the UN High Commission for Refugees. But there are signs that the political consensus around the operation is vacillating, with many saying the operation provides an incentive for migrants to take the sea route to Europe.

After hundreds of interceptions at sea, a change of government and the start of summer, which always brings more arrivals, political support for the operation is deteriorating. The Northern League, lately joined by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, routinely attacks Mare Nostrum, most notably accusing the government of letting in migrants who spread diseases and, lately, attacking the prime minister for having migrants’ blood on his hands.

The government continues to defend Mare Nostrum publicly, but ministers are increasingly questioning the long-term sustainability of this kind of humanitarian operation, and repeatedly call for the EU to take responsibility. They argue the Mediterranean is “a European border”, not simply an Italian one.

The Mediterranean is an EU border

A running cost of more than €9m a month is not the only concern for the Italian government. Overcrowded reception facilities pose security and health hazards, but the real question is: what next? What to do with the thousands migrants brought to the shore?

An initial screening of the arrivals shows that more than 80% had the prerequisites for applying for asylum. But even if they are recognised as refugees, the Italian state has not much to offer to them. Many will survive in destitution in Italian cities or move to other EU countries to join family members or go off in search of better economic opportunities and more generous welfare systems.

So it’s hardly surprising that Italy has indicated an EU-wide immmigration policy as a priority for its presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The Mediterranean is indeed an EU border, not least because it is the EU (Italy included) that those crossing the sea on rickety boats dream of reaching. It is in the EU and what they think it stands for that they are seeking refuge and the chance to create a better, safer life for themselves and their families. Sadly, at a time of nationalist resurgence, the call for a fully European response may fall once again on deaf ears.

The Conversation

Nando Sigona does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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