Can Europe Make It?

Mourning the Mediterranean dead and locking up survivors

Although the EU, US and others have demonstrated a willingness to intervene militarily in Libya or Syria, a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences is woefully lacking. 

Cetta Mainwaring
27 April 2015
24 Libyan bodies brought to Malta, April 20.

24 Libyan bodies brought to Malta, April 20. Demotix/ Christian Mangion.All rights reserved.Loss of life in the Mediterranean during the last few weeks brings the death toll this year to 1,776. 2015 is on course to be the deadliest year on record. The avoidable loss of life is all the more devastating in light of its predictability. Ongoing violence and instability in Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere meant that people would continue to leave these areas and attempt to reach Europe. The lack of legal avenues into Europe for migrants and refugees alongside the EU’s emphasis on border control ensured that they would be obliged to resort to the services of smugglers and to dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. Finally, the reduction in resources committed by EU member states to search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean since October 2014 guaranteed that many more of those embarking on the journey would not arrive on the Sea’s northern shores.

We know all too little of the nameless bodies that are once again washing up on Mediterranean beaches this week: we do know that they are men, women, and children who had fled violence, instability, and poverty and attempted to find safe places for their children to grow and a better life in Europe. There are reports that they included people from Syria, Somalia, Palestine, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh. In recent days, Malta and Italy buried the limited number of dead pulled from the Sea in coffins anonymously marked with haunting words: ‘Body No: 132’.

As Nando Sigona has written, the avoidable deaths of so many people brings into sharp relief the question of how much a human life is worth. It also raises the uncomfortable question of when we bestow worth onto particular human beings. The hypocrisy during this last week has been clear: as with previous, avoidable tragedies at sea, while the dead are commemorated, the few lucky enough to survive are branded as ‘illegal’, put into detention, and threatened with deportation.

Following the response of EU politicians this week, you would be forgiven for thinking that people cross the Mediterranean solely because of their access to smugglers’ boats or because of good weather. Politicians have been quick to call this latest incident a tragedy, and quicker still to lay blame at the feet of smugglers. Although the President of the European Council declared that the EU’s ‘overriding priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea’, and at an emergency summit on Thursday EU member states pledged to triple the resources available to Frontex operations in the Central Mediterranean, the emphasis is still overwhelmingly on enforcement and deterrence. If there was any doubt, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri drove the message home on the eve of the EU summit maintaining that saving lives in the Mediterranean was not a priority for the agency.

The deterrent and enforcement aspects of the EU’s response have centered on smugglers, characterized by politicians in recent days as ‘slave traders’. The EU announced it would launch an operation to seize and destroy boats used by smugglers in Libya. The details of the plan remain hazy, yet the rhetoric reduces migrants and refugees to flotsam and jetsam pushed and pulled by more powerful forces.

It overlooks the fact that despite enormous resources spent on building ‘Fortress Europe’, borders remain porous and migration routes adapt in the face of new control measures. Significantly, the emphasis on combatting smugglers also obscures the ways in which EU border controls have contributed to the business of smuggling. With no legal routes around the walls and barriers that surround Europe, Syrian and Somali refugees, migrants trapped in Libya, and others are left with few options but to engage a smuggler. The surest way to undermine this booming business of smuggling would be to open legal channels into Europe.

Conspicuously absent in the EU policy response is also any discussion of the conflicts that have, for example, caused the number of Syrians crossing the Central Mediterranean to increase from 100 in 2012 to 10,000 in 2013 and 42,000 in 2014. Although the EU, the US, and other western states have demonstrated a willingness to intervene militarily and politically in Libya, Syria, and other parts of the region, a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of these interventions is woefully lacking. Thus, while Turkey, Lebanon, Jordon, and other neighboring countries host more than three million Syrian refugees, only 150,000 asylum applications have been made by Syrians in the EU.

Though many welcome the promise of an expansion of Frontex operations that effectively act as a search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, we would do well to remember that even at the height of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation last year, over 3,000 people lost their lives. Search and rescue operations cannot replace legal access to Europe, access that has been considerably restricted for most of the world’s population over the last 25 years.

The Mediterranean Sea was the deadliest part of the world for migrants in 2014: the 3,166 people who lost their lives between the Sea’s northern and southern shores constituted over 70% of migrant deaths worldwide according to the International Organization for Migration. These deaths occurred despite the extensive search and rescue activities of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation that rescued more than 150,000 people between October 2013 and October 2014.  Given the still limited resources to rescue people at sea as well as the lack of legal channels into Europe for the vast majority of Syrian, Somalis, Palestinians and others, the recent deaths at sea and the response by EU politicians raise the question of what kind of Europe we want to create and live in: one that is a leader in the world because it lives up to its principles of inclusion, freedom of movement, refugee protection and other human rights, or one that builds walls to exclude, allows people to die en masse at its borders, and leads the world only in migrant deaths? 

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