Challenges of the Mediterranean illegal migration crisis

The perspective of those who are at sea, whatever the conditions, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year, to make the maritime environment safer and more secure.

Mário Marques
21 April 2017

Migrants crossing the Mediterranean sea heading from the Turkish coast, January 2016. Wikicommons/Mstyslav Chernov/Unfram. Some rights reserved.The European Coast Guard Functions Forum (ECGFF) is a voluntary, independent and non-political forum whose membership includes the main agencies of 25 European Union Member States and associated Schengen countries performing Coast Guard functions, plus the European Commission and its institutions and agencies with related competencies in this area (Frontex, EMSA, EFCA, and EASO).

The aim of the Forum is to study and to contribute to the understanding and the development of maritime issues related to Coast Guard functions, as well as to the progress of related activities, which are quite broad in scope, including:

  • - maritime safety, including vessel traffic management;
  • - maritime, ship and port security;
  • - maritime customs activities;
  • - prevention and suppression of trafficking and smuggling and connected maritime law enforcement;
  • - maritime border control;
  • - maritime monitoring and surveillance;
  • - maritime environmental protection and response;
  • - maritime search and rescue;
  • - ship casualty and maritime assistance service;
  • - maritime accident and disaster response;
  • - fisheries inspection and control; and
  • - activities related to the above Coast Guard Functions.

The fact that more than 300 agencies in Europe are dealing with these subjects gives an idea of the diversity and complexity of issues that potentially fall within the scope of the ECGFF.

Therefore, the issues discussed in CEPS Ideas Lab 2017 regarding the illegal migration crisis through the Mediterranean, while being of utmost importance, nevertheless represent just a subset of the full spectrum of Coast Guard functions.

Key challenges

Europe is facing a very prolonged migration crisis through the Mediterranean, which started in 2011 in Lampedusa. By definition a crisis is an overwhelming situation that overloads the response capacity of the local standing organizations. This crisis called for cooperation and coordination among different agencies from multiple countries to ensure an adequate level of response. What we found is that we were not fully prepared to deal with this situation. None of the challenges faced is a show stopper, but we must deal with problems that range from the lack of standard operating procedures; organizational match; common language, culture and training; adequate level of information sharing to smoothly generate the necessary situational understanding. In short, we lack interoperability.

There is a reason for that. In the area of Coast Guard functions, the authority and responsibilities are mostly at national level, and the characteristics and risks of the European maritime regions differ a lot when the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Baltic or the Artic contexts are considered.

Despite that, several agencies participating in the ECGFF are cooperating in the Mediterranean to give a comprehensive response to this crisis. FRONTEX is coordinating operations in the East, Central and West Mediterranean Sea (Poseidon, Triton and Indalo), relevant lessons are taken from this experience, and practical solutions to improve the operational product are being identified.

Additionally, there are also military operations conducted under the European Union Common Security and Defence Policy (operation SOPHIA) and under NATO (Operation SEA GUARDIAN), which should be seen as elements of a broader multidimensional response towards both the refugee crisis and restoring stability in Libya.

Comments on the possible solution

The recently published CEPS Task Force report entitled “The European Border and Coast Guard. Addressing migration and asylum challenges in the Mediterranean?” provides good food for thought, but recommendations might not be holistic enough to encompass the European Coast Guard problem and deal with its complexity.

It should be noted that, within the ECGFF, Member States are working in close collaboration with the EU Institutions in developing and training in a concept of Multiagency Multifunctional Operations (MMO), and that several pilot projects related to the Academies’ Network or Operational Coordination are under way. The aim of all these initiatives is to meet the challenge of achieving a mature, effective and efficient European Coast Guard Network prepared to collectively ensure a high level of response when facing crises.

However, this is not enough. The solution for the current migration problem requires a more comprehensive approach, involving the 3Ds - diplomacy, defence, and development. The CEPS report clearly identifies that the root causes of the migration are not at sea, they lie ashore and very often quite far from the coast where the effects are felt. In fact, the solution goes far beyond the Coast Guard dimension and requires courses of action that are twofold:

-      The first, focused on our closer neighbours, implies the stabilization and empowerment of the countries that are being used as a base for migrant smuggling operations, through programs that help to reinstate the rule of law and the control of borders, as well as Intelligence-gathering initiatives to identify the smugglers’ networks, actors and assets, and to find ways of disrupting their operation;

-      The second, with a broader geographical scope, is to address the root causes of migration in the countries of origin, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. As we all know, most migrants are escaping from wars or from very dysfunctional societies. Dealing with this problem requires securing and stabilizing those countries while supporting development programs that contribute to sustainable and functional societies.

This is already an ongoing effort, and one should recognize and honour the important contribution of the thousands of European soldiers, sailors, and airmen, as well as policemen, who are permanently engaged in peacebuilding operations conducted under the European Union, the United Nations or NATO (for instance, in the Centre of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea, or in the Horn of Africa).

Are all these goals easy and quick to achieve?

Probably not, but we need to be optimistic that smart minds, thinking together, may end up finding the right solutions or, at least, better solutions.

The ECGFF is eager to contribute to the discussion of the very important issues relating to an illegal migration crisis throughout the Mediterranean, and to identify solutions to create an effective and efficient Network of European Coast Guards prepared to respond to this and other types of crisis situation. To reach such a level of preparedness, we not only need the knowhow to do “things right”, but also the wisdom to do the “right things”, which is a very different matter.

The ECGFF is very open for this discussion and also to offer the chance for a reality check, provided by the perspective of those who are at sea, under whatever conditions, 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year, to make the maritime environment safer and more secure.

In summary: the problem is not new, but has reached a dimension after 2011 with the aftermath of the ‘Arabic Spring’ in North Africa, and with the wars in the Middle East, that has turned into a major crisis. By definition a crisis is an overwhelming situation that overloads the response capacity of the local standing organizations. We need to respond to the crisis, to learn how to mitigate its effects, and to prepare the crises management structure for new crisis occurrences.

From a maritime environment perspective, the response may still require improving but it is given in a collaborative and cooperative way, employing Member States’ assets and capabilities, and connecting in a coordinated way with FRONTEX and other European Union agencies. This ensures unity of effort and purpose, and the most effective outcome, respecting International law and human rights principles.

Addressing the other components of the crisis management cycle (mitigation and preparedness) is something that needs to be carefully considered and the solution must not be more problematic to operationalize than the initial situation, particularly when you consider the complexity and diversity of potential domains of intervention to consider, and that the current institutional situation is the result of quite long periods of evolution and maturation.

The CEPS report provides food for thought. However, because the recommendations are not consensual, its findings need to be addressed with caution. In fact, ECGFF Member States are working in close collaboration with EU institutions to develop a concept of Multiagency Multifunctional Operations and to develop pilot projects which address all the challenges in a comprehensive way, identifying a common purpose and joining the efforts of all these entities in a mature, effective but also efficient European Coast Guard Network – one able to provide an operational product rising to the level of ambition of our stakeholders.

This is in line with the spirit and motto of the ECGFF: cooperation, collaboration, coordination.

The 2017 CEPS Ideas Lab – a key annual event on EU policy organised by the Brussels-based think tank, the Centre for European Policy Studies – asked how such core EU challenges as Rights & Security can be implemented with respect for the EU rule of law and fundamental rights. Cooperating with openDemocracy, we bring the resulting debates to this dedicated page.

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