Can Europe Stop the Mediterranean From Turning Into a Graveyard?

New EU proposals to prevent the dangerous practice of boat migration could hurt, rather than save, refugees trying to reach Europe say human rights groups

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In the early hours of Thursday morning, on October 3, a fishing boat overcrowded with some five hundred African migrants from Eritrea approached the Italian shoreline of the island of Lampedusa. Within eyesight of their destination, the engine stalled. In order to signal for help, the captain decided to burn a blanket on the overcrowded vessel. The resulting incident became one of the deadliest migrant boat tragedies in recent European history. With over 360 people killed, it revealed what human rights bodies such as Human Rights Watch describe as the “hidden emergency” of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, where some 20,000 people have lost their lives in an attempt to reach European shores over the past two decades.

On Dec. 4 the EU Commission, its executive body, published proposals made by the Task Force Mediterranean, a body set up by the Commission in October to prevent the ongoing spate of tragedies like the one off Lampedusa. But accompanying the EU executive body’s attempt to unify the region’s response to such humanitarian disasters is the politically volatile debate over the issue of migration and border management in Europe.

“Europe can neither save nor welcome the whole world,” said Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament (the EU’s directly elected legislative wing) to a meeting of EU leaders in October following the Lampedusa disaster, reflecting the concerns of some EU member states, like Britain and France, who fear an influx of migrants. Ska Keller, a German member of European Parliament, says, “There is still a group of people who say that what we should do against people dying is that we should do more against migration.” This, she says, is “a very strange idea,” as “the policy of trying to close off the border has led to people taking more dangerous routes.”

For those who have made the crossing to Europe to apply for asylum, there is ambivalence about what European politicians say they will do to address the problem. Ghlam Vali, a 37-year-old refugee who is fighting deportation from Germany back to his homeland in Pakistan, says that while Lampedusa opened many people’s eyes to what, he says, happens every day, “these accidents will happen in the future. They won’t give them rights. They still won’t care.” And within the EU, there is discord between southern European countries like Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain that are on the frontline of the migration flows from outside the EU, and northern European countries like Belgium, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden that receive the highest levels of asylum applications in Europe. Human rights advocacy group Amnesty International pointed to unilateral attempts by countries to deal with migratory pressure, like Spain’s decision to add a seven meter high barbed wire fence along a 11 km border it shares with Morocco in November, as evidence of how EU member states are “focusing on policing the EU external borders, rather than protecting people and saving lives.”

Proposals put forward by the Task Force Mediterranean attempt to unite the bloc’s approach, most notably with increased financial support for those member states most affected by migration patterns, including $41 million for Italy, whose coastguard often finds itself dealing with boats full of migrants. One of the central goals proposed by the Task Force is improving border surveillance along EU’s frontiers. To do this the EU is planning to utilize its new, pan-European virtual watchtower system, the European Border Surveillance System (Eurosur), launched on Dec. 2. The EU says it will allow for real-time information exchange and cooperation between national border agencies, enabling border agencies to better spot smaller maritime vessels and respond to incidents. The 18 member states signed up to the system, which will cost $332 million to run between 2014-2020, are expected to provide live updates of border related incidents to the shared platform.

Michele Cercone, the EU spokesperson for Home Affairs, says that the goal of the system is to bring harmony to the region’s border control activities. What’s holding these states back from identifying small vessels often used for irregular migration, says Cercone, is the lack of cooperation between border agencies both within a state and between countries, rather than a lack of technology.

Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, says that EU officials say that the EU faces a dilemma in how potential migrants from places like Syria, Eritrea and Somalia, who often take considerable risks to be smuggled across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, view its policy: “If the message to the world is we are going to be patrolling across the Mediterranean and will rescue and take to the EU anyone in distress, then that could lead to individuals intentionally putting their own lives at risk.” She argues that while one of the stated objectives of Eurosur is to prevent migrant deaths, the EU has offered little operational guidance on how that could be achieved. If for example both Italian and Maltese border agencies had spotted a boat in distress near one of their coasts, the real-time sharing platform does not “prevent them from arguing over who should respond and wasting valuable time,” explains Sunderland.

Sunderland says the existing regulations for Frontex, the EU border security agency that will oversee Eurosur, allow it to “undertake maneuvers to prevent boats from entering EU territorial waters,” so that it can intercept and prevent vessels carrying migrants from reaching European shores—a practice that Human Rights Watch argues is illegal. However Cercone rejects the notion that Eurosur will better enable national border agencies to deter migrants from reaching their borders, arguing that the regulations for the system include a number of provisions “to ensure full compliance with fundamental rights.”

But the new proposals put forward by the Task Force do go some way in acknowledging that new and existing EU border surveillance are not enough in dealing with the challenges of irregular migration. One long-term proposal is to explore avenues for legal migration, including for “protected entries” that would-be migrants could use to access asylum safely to the EU without resorting to potentially fatal journeys. This however comes with the same caveat that has made finding a common EU policy on migration so difficult: to get member states, already divided along north-south lines when it comes to the issue of irregular migration, to agree to a common policy that may not play to their own individual interests.

-—with reporting by Simon Shuster / Berlin