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Migrant tragedies and the need for more comprehensive policies

May 9th, 2015

By Valerio Melegari – Research Assistant

As another sea tragedy on 19 April 2015 saw hundreds of migrants dying in the Mediterranean, it once again feels necessary to draw the lines between the immigration phenomenon and the policies that are being implemented to avoid such tragic events. The role that Italy has played in tackling such a humanitarian emergency has been proactive and effective to a certain extent, although often obstructed or undermined from within.

The Operation Mare Nostrum, set in place in October 2013, had primarily engaged in a search and rescue stable operation, aiming not only at saving incoming immigrants when accidents occurred, but also at preventing such accidents from happening. Naval and air units provided constant maritime security. On average, five ships were on field at any time of the day. Sea patrolling covered a huge area, reaching Libyan coasts on a daily basis. The operation had a 9 million euros monthly budget (of which some 1.8 million came from the EU), and more than 30 naval units and 2 submarines were provided. It is estimated that, in the year Mare Nostrum operated, some 150,000 migrants were saved and led to the Italian soil.[1]

However, numbers and strategy goals change drastically when it comes to Triton. Conducted by Frontex, the EU’s border security agency, the Operation saw a much smaller available budget – roughly 3 million euros, one third of that of Mare Nostrum – and a much smaller number of patrolling units. Even more importantly, the main mission concerns border controls and not, as previously implemented by Mare Nostrum, a strong search and rescue policy. Patrolling is circumscribed to no more than 30 miles off Italian shores.[2] The International Organisation for Migration reports that, since the start of this year, migrant death toll has been 30 times higher than during the same time period in 2014.[3] Noticeably, the EU response and strategy have, so far, not been able to effectively tackle the ongoing problem.

The need for better enforcement of the Triton operation is more than evident. Regardless, it would be insufficient to address the illegal immigration issues solely on this basis. There is a “prior” and an “afterwards” to deal with when considering such an issue. Preventive measures should not just address the perils of the sea. They should widen the scope and aim at supporting migrants even before they are forced to put their lives at risk. They should provide protection while they are trying to reach our shores. They should also support them after they have made it on European soil. It is a three-step combination of strategic actions that must be undertaken as a unitary whole in order to fully provide aid, safety and assistance to individuals.

The broad frame of human rights and human security is the starting point in the analysis on immigration and migrant tragedies. Legislative stances play a major role in defining what frontiers are, and how individuals are allowed to cross borders. Nevertheless, a need for accuracy and flexibility occurs when human security is severely at risk. Professor Hans Rosling [4] highlights how the difficulties and rejections encountered when trying to reach Europe by plane lead the majority of asylum seekers and refugees to embark on dangerous sea travels, led by smugglers under illegal circumstances. Grounded legal procedures cannot provide for real-time emergencies and individual cases in time of need. Processing asylum claims means that it is only up to subjective assessment to decide whether someone is actually in life danger and in need of protection. Furthermore, the likelihood of repatriation, which the host country is required to pay for, contributes to the low probability of migrant success in getting a visa, or even a more informal allowance based on vital emergencies. When law cannot provide a quick and effective response to survival needs, it is easily understandable that other measures are sought in order to look for personal safety. Fear also definitely plays a role in the process. Terrorist threats againsts Italy and other Southern European countries, not to mention the recent attacks in Paris or Copenhagen, fortify a global narrative of dread and alarm that reasonably accounts for stricter defense measures and safety policies. At the same time, this tighter European closeness towards the outside may prove detrimental to those who are already experiencing these dangers back home and seek international help.

Additionally, even if the refugees make it to Europe alive, what policies are being adopted nationally and internationally with respect to their status? If it is true that the EU is planning on offering resettlement to just 5,000 refugees, [5] it is questionable by which means the “lucky” 5,000 will be selected among many others. What constitutes priority criteria when lives are in danger? Most importantly, the remaining migrants are very likely to be repatriated, taking them back exactly where their existence is at risk. Moreover, the majority of boat survivors reach Italian, Maltese, Greek or Spanish coasts and, also due to the Dublin Regulation, are very likely to stay in these countries, without getting to take one further step in Europe. The visible imbalance in rescuing and hosting commitment among member states aggravates the responsibility of the abovementioned frontline states, which definitely do not possess the strength or the willingness to solve the issue alone, nor should they be expected to. Provisional shelters and welcoming centers cannot sustain the incoming migrant influx and, though they are supposed to be a temporary accommodation, often become the only available space for asylum seekers. They are left waiting for auxiliary actions that, sadly, never come into being. In fact, fierce competition ensues between different organisations to take charge and make money out of these shelters, supporting a lucrative strategy that has more to do with migrants as market currency and less as individuals deprived of their basic rights. [6] Several national NGOs and charity institutions attempt to deliver aid and support to these individuals, but it is too much of a challenge without a solid legislative and bureaucratic support backing them.

On 23rd April, a meeting of the European Council finally led to a new commitment to reinforce Triton by tripling its budget and resorting to an effective search and rescue strategy. It also confirmed the willingness to identify and destroy ships that could potentially be used by sea traffickers and smugglers, an operation that should be implemented carefully as to not provide more harm than benefit to the cause. Among other things, it mentioned efforts to help fight domestic issues in the countries from where the strongest migratory flows take place (such as Libya, Syria, Egypt, Mali and Niger). The statement also referred to improving asylum policies on European soil by better implementing the Common European Asylum System and organising emergency relocation of asylum seekers among member states, though “on a voluntary basis”. [7]

Some of the major points of this analysis have been touched upon in the statement, and it is obviously too soon to predict whether these measures will actually take place and whether the outcomes will effectively be positive. Regardless, it still looks like more emphasis is placed on the necessity to contain the incoming migrant flux rather than implementing effective and quick policies to support individuals throughout their journey and after, under the aegis of a full respect for human rights. Furthermore, what seems to be missing is a real engagement on part of all member states to truly cooperate as equal actors of the European Union project.

As is clearly evident from the unfortunate consequences of Triton as compared to Mare Nostrum and the resistance by some countries to take a stronger stand on the issue, the supremacy of communitarian law over national legislation does not always work for the best. A joint response must be implemented that relies on a common strategy for action, a shared sense of responsibility and a balanced use of resources by all members states. Without a truly communitarian project and a solid willingness to place human security on the frontline, it will be hard to make a real change in tackling this emergency. Actively improving safety measures by sea would indeed be a step forward, but it does not mean migrants are ultimately safe. All resources should be used to grant protection to people before, during and after they embark on a last-resort journey to survive.

 

[1] Mare Nostrum operation, Ministry of Defense [LINK] [2] Frontex operation Triton, EUbusiness, 31 October  2014 [LINK] [3] ‘Mediterranean migrants: Details emerge of deadly capsize’, BBC, 21 April 2015 [LINK] [4] Hans Rosling Official Twitter Page [LINK] [5] ‘EU summit to offer resettlement to only 5,000 refugees’, The Guardian, 23 April 2015 [LINK] [6] ‘Immigration centres are new cash cow for Italian mafia’, Euobserver, 4 December 2014[LINK] [7] Special meeting of the European Council, 23 April 2015 – statement [LINK]

About Valerio Melegari