Migrants in the Mediterranean: mourning deaths, not saving lives

For as long as the humanitarian impulse to rescue the desperate and the destitute is trumped by Europe’s focus on border control, the death toll will rise inexorably.

Elisabeth Schmidt-Hieber Maria Giovanna Manieri
23 February 2015

Can human empathy triumph over fearful 'security'?—at a pro-migrant demonstration in Lausanne. Flickr / Gustave Deghilage. Some rights reserved.

After a record number of migrants died in the Mediterranean in 2014, yet another incident has claimed 300 lives, including 29 who died from hypothermia on board Italian coastguard vessels. In the week from 13 February, at least 3,800 were rescued.  

In the absence of political will to overhaul Europe’s flawed migration policies, interested organisations and migrants’ rights advocates responded to this most recent incident with calls for improved search-and-rescue operations. Joint Operation Triton, under the aegis of the EU agency Frontex, has been criticised for not focusing on saving migrants’ lives since the Italian-led search-and-rescue Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) ended in November 2014.

The European Commission responded to the criticism by extending Triton, originally foreseen to run for only a few months, until at least the end of 2015. And €13.7 million in emergency support, from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), was awarded to Italy.

Very different

Mare Nostrum and Triton are however two very different operations with two very different missions. Mare Nostrum, mainly managed by the Italian government at a cost of about €9 million a month, employed airplanes, helicopters, drones and naval vessels for search-and-rescue missions and indeed helped save the lives of thousands of migrants. 

But Mare Nostrum was not a comprehensive response to the increasing crisis in the Mediterranean. Migrants continued to die and Italy could not and did not want to assume the responsibility and costs alone. The operation did not have much external support: the European Commission only contributed one month’s operating costs.

When Triton was announced in October 2014, many understood it as a replacement. This overlooked one crucial fact: search and rescue is not in Triton’s mandate. The primary role of Frontex is border management and control. Thus, with the launch of Triton it was clear border control was being prioritised over search and rescue.

When distress calls are received, Frontex assets are used to assist member states with search and rescue, thereby helping states to fulfil their obligations under international maritime law. Therefore, vessels, planes and other assets deployed in the joint operation have been used in these most recent rescue efforts.

Regardless of their mandate, operations which lift migrants from sinking vessels or freezing waters are no real solution to the underlying crisis. There is a critical need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the results of restrictive migration policies promoted by the European Union and its member states. At this point, the only way for certain groups of migrants to reach Europe is to board precarious dinghies and face eight-metre waves, as reported by survivors of the shipwreck this month.

Political will

In some cases, there is even a lack of political will on the part of EU member states to take part in lifesaving operations—claiming they provide a 'pull factor' for more migrants to make the dangerous crossing, knowing they will be saved. If saving lives is not a priority for all member states, there is no point in calling for more joint rescue missions.

As there is no accountability for what happens to these migrants, it is easier to mourn deaths instead of saving lives. When migrants die in international waters, responsibility can simply be avoided.

The Mediterranean has become a mass grave. There are no investigations into migrants’ deaths by public authorities. For migrants it has become the deadliest sea worldwide and Europe the most dangerous destination, with more than 22,000 losing their lives since 2000, according to a report from the International Organisation for Migration.

Civil-society organisations are continuing to put a human face to these grim statistics by collecting testimonies from those who have survived shipwrecks and violence to report on what is happening at sea. Often individuals fill the gap where governments have failed. Father Mussie Zerai, who himself left Eritrea as a young man, uses satellite phone to contact migrants crossing the Mediterranean with the help of his organisation, Agenzia Habeshia. He alerts authorities as soon as a distress call is received.

But efforts to save migrants’ lives are not the sole responsibility of civil-society organisations or individuals. They continue to call for co-ordinated and formally established response from political institutions and public authorities of all member states. 

Regular channels

While the EU institutions ‘fight irregular migration’, increasingly focusing on co-operation with third countries to prevent migrants reaching the continent’s southern shores, the calls for more regular channels to allow migrants to safely reach Europe finally seem to have been heard.

The EU commissioner for migration and home affairs, Dimitris Avramopoulos, recently said the commission intended to present a new agenda on migration. This would assist migrants in need of protection and ‘make Europe attractive by opening legal channels and supporting integration’.

For the crisis in the Mediterranean to have any chance of subsiding, however, the EU must address the need for more and better channels for labour migration, as well as ensuring safe routes for those seeking international protection.

This will of course take time—time during which the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean in unseaworthy dinghies will not decrease. Against the backdrop of escalating conflict and violence in Libya, even greater numbers are likely.

In the absence of comprehensive political solutions, Italian coastguards alone can neither manage these massive rescue operations nor be the only ones to be held accountable afterwards.

As the Financial Times rightly affirmed, even before the last massive rescue operation on 15 February,

Europe’s respect for universal human rights helps explain why so many yearn to cross its borders ... When young families are drowning off the Mediterranean coast, everything must be done to rescue them, whoever they are.

It is up to us to ensure that this respect for universal human rights includes everyone, regardless of residence status. 

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