By Zahava Moerdler
Europe is currently facing an international crisis. Thousands of migrants are making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in the hopes of finding better living conditions, escaping persecution or giving their families a better chance at education and prosperity. However, European states remain aloof as migrants flood both Italy and Greece and are resistant to policy changes that would ensure better treatment of migrants once they reach European shores. The number of deaths has decreased this month as several European Union (EU) navies have sent more ships and efforts by private rescue groups like Médecins Sans Frontières and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station have increased. Yet, 46,000 migrants have reached Europe since the start of 2015, as compared to the 41,243 who migrated to Europe between January and May 2014, according to the United Nations (UN). Even with increased efforts to help migrants cross the sea, thousands are still pouring into European countries, which are unready and unwilling to help them assimilate.
PAST AND PRESENT
With the vast influx of migrants during the height and close of colonialism, European countries endeavored to find a way to assimilate these populations. After World War II, many countries, including France, Belgium and Germany, opened their borders, often enticing foreign workers to migrate. For example, in the 1950s, Indians and Pakistanis began to immigrate to the United Kingdom and in the 1970s, so did many from Bangladesh. The European countries saw these groups as temporary “guest workers,” as did the migrants themselves. With the economic downturn in the 1970s, European countries began to close off access to foreign workers. Thus, one aspect of the current migrant dilemma resides in a historical precedent for foreign workers. However, today, many flee war-torn countries and seek better healthcare, childcare and standards of living in Europe.
It is illegal under international law for countries to return migrants who are fleeing persecution in their own countries. As a result, thousands are making the dangerous trek from war-torn North Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean and into Europe. Others are migrating to Europe to secure a better future for their families and for economic reasons. European countries are scrambling to figure out ways to help these individuals as they venture across the sea, and once they make it into Europe, to find them places to live and rebuild their lives. However, with a growing far-right in many European countries, instead of addressing the situation, many are protecting their borders from fear of terrorism threats from abroad. Countries like Britain and France are exercising “fortress policies” in which the focus remains on limiting the number of asylum applicants.
DANGER AND DEATH
In the first four months of 2015 alone, over 1,800 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration. Italy, which has become “Europe’s migrant bottleneck,” is at the center of this crisis. 170,000 out of the 200,000 migrants who arrived in Europe last year came through Italy. In April, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi organized an emergency EU summit due to the crisis. Because of EU budget constraints, Italy had to stop its Mare Nostrum, or search and rescue operations. Additionally, since Mare Nostrum was replaced by “Operation Triton,” the EU’s border agency, the number of deaths has greatly increased. The new operation will mean fewer boats are provided by EU countries for patrolling the Mediterranean. There will also be less search and rescue operations because of the decrease in ships and funding. Thus, a less secure Mediterranean is bound to result.
Most of the migrants taking the perilous journey into Europe in 2015 hail from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan, according to the UN refugee agency. In 2011, thousands of Tunisians arrived in Italy through the island of Lampedusa, which remains a bottleneck because of its proximity to North Africa as compared with mainland Italy. With the vast number of migrants, the end of Mare Nostrum and the cheaper and more limited Triton in place, the trip across the Mediterranean has, according to many aid organizations, put more migrant lives at risk.
But even before making the trip across the sea, migrants travel hundreds and thousands of miles, often in hostile territory, in order to reach the shores of the Mediterranean and the smugglers awaiting them there. According to a United Nations report, human trafficking from Libya was a $170 million business last year. Migrants often pack themselves into anything seaworthy—most owned by human smuggling rings—and are loaded beyond the tipping point. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, “gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, and sometimes at gunpoint. They’re putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing else.” Many migrants travel from the Horn of Africa, are often treated brutally by traffickers, and endure desert heat and even unrest in Libya, the most common departure point. On April 20, another boat sank off the Greek island of Rhodes, which is another major bottleneck into Europe from the Middle East and Asia, killing at least three people. According to one survivor, many remained trapped inside the boat as it sank because the smugglers who organized the voyage had locked the doors to the lower levels of the ship.
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
So, what is Europe doing about all this? The United Nations envoy for international migration, Peter Sutherland, told the Security Council that the first step towards addressing the crisis must be a resolution to immediately save lives. On May 18, EU ministers, in response to the crisis, approved an air and sea mission that would destroy the vessels human traffickers are using to smuggle migrants across the sea. The mission’s first phase will be an intelligence gathering operation and the United Kingdom is expected to offer drone and surveillance support. As the mission progresses, vessels suspected of harboring migrants will be boarded and searched and either seized or disposed of in Libyan territory. The EU’s foreign policy chief claims the operation could be launched as early as June 25. The mission will be launched from Italy, one of the major bottlenecks into Europe. There is anticipation that the plan will be brought before the UN due to concern over militarization and Libyan concerns over sovereignty. Additionally, Russian officials have expressed concerns about the mission, which leaves approval in the UN uncertain. Rights groups also warn about the impact of militarization on migrants who could be placed in far greater peril.
Meanwhile, European countries continue to militarize their borders and to maintain policies of inaction as a form of deterrence for future migrants. Although funds for Operation Triton have increased threefold, most Europe countries are reluctant to see the crisis in the Mediterranean as a humanitarian crisis, which would require search and rescue efforts as well as a willingness by European states to resettle and even welcome refugees. For example, the United Kingdom has donated substantial funds but has been unwilling and has made no commitment towards taking in any refugees. On June 2, French police evacuated a migrant camp in Paris and then bulldozed the tents located there. Police undertook this operation as a way of controlling the ever-growing population of migrants moving into France. 380 individuals from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan were told to pack their belongings and loaded onto a bus before their camp was destroyed. This was not the first time a European state destroyed a migrant camp—in May, authorities in Rome evacuated a camp that had been around for almost two decades.
Many of the refugees migrating to Europe are asylum seekers fleeing turmoil in Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. Yet, the EU has had difficulty coordinating and reconciling its asylum policy for years, especially since there are 28 member states with their own police force and judiciary. There are more detailed joint rules brought in with the Common European Asylum System, but there has been little practice in putting those rules into action. The major principle for handling asylum claims in the EU is the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that responsibility for processing claims lies with the member state who played the largest part in the applicant’s entry into the EU. By and large, that is the first country the migrant entered, which today means Italy and Greece. Thus, large numbers of applicants and migrants currently reside in Italy and Greece awaiting word on their petitions. Sometimes, migrants have families elsewhere with whom they want to be reunited, and so the principle member state would be that country where the family resides. As a result, there is significant tension across Europe because states like Greece and Italy are inundated with applications, since they are the first point of entry. Germany and Finland are the only two states who have stopped sending migrants back to the original point of entry, whether it be Italy or Greece. Additionally, countries like Germany and France have opposed EU plans to spread 40,000 migrants across member states in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the influx on Italy and Greece.
The net result is a rather dark picture of Europe today. While thousands are attempting incredibly dangerous trips through deserts, war, hostility, and across the Mediterranean, Europe remains as cold and aloof as ever. With no clear resolution in sight and no adjustment for asylum or immigration policy, migrants who do make it to Europe are stuck at their point of entry. With Europe’s Eurodac system, a database of asylum seekers’ fingerprints, mobility becomes even less likely. Unless Europe can adopt a proper policy for acceptance, assimilation and resettlement, thousands will continue to remain stuck in Greece and Italy, causing problems not only for the migrants seeking to start a new life, but also the economic, social and political situation in Greece and Italy. Hopefully, the EU can provide greater support beyond the bare bones of Operation Triton, since the influx of migrants and refugees does not seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
Photo Credit: Sarah Tzinieris/Creative Commons