With over 1,000 migrants in the Mediterranean feared dead following a series of incidents in recent weeks, EU Foreign and Interior Ministers agreed on an action plan on 20 April for addressing the crisis. Anna Triandafyllidou writes on the factors underpinning the problem and outlines four key elements that a new strategic approach should consist of: strengthening the EU’s search and rescue capabilities, enlisting the support of neighbouring countries, tackling the smuggling networks active in the region, and reforming the system that assigns responsibility for asylum seekers between EU states.
While the problem of irregular crossings and the tragic loss of human life witnessed recently is not new in the Mediterranean, the geopolitical context within which this happens is quite different from what it was in 2006 when the Canary islands crisis took place, with 26,000 arrivals in one year. Since then arrivals along the western Mediterranean route (via Morocco to Spain) have decreased while the central Mediterranean (via Libya to Italy) and the eastern Mediterranean routes (via Turkey to Greece) have fluctuated significantly, with peaks of arrivals in Italy in 2007-08 and peaks in Greece in 2010-12.
The crossings, the associated smuggling businesses, and the overall flight of both economic migrants and asylum seekers now takes place in a completely different context. The map of North Africa has changed: Libya has collapsed into internal chaos, Egypt has restored authoritarian (secular) rule, Tunisia has democratised, and Morocco is also gradually democratising. Indeed the latter two countries promise to be the most reliable allies of the EU in efforts to manage asylum seeking and irregular migration in the Mediterranean.
At the same time, however, several states in the Middle East have imploded, with Islamic State controlling parts of Syria and Iraq, creating huge instability in the region. Islamic State have spread violence across borders through taped beheadings and executions of ‘infidels’ of all kinds, as well as of Muslims who do not align (whether it is the captured Jordanian fighter pilot or its own followers that smoke cigarettes or are deemed to have offended the Prophet).
This new geopolitical context of violence, insecurity and outright war has huge repercussions for irregular migration and asylum seeking flows. It generates new flows of people in search of basic human security. It also pushes the middle classes of North Africa and the Middle East out of those countries which have failed to democratise and transform, while opening up ‘business opportunities’ for both smuggling and trafficking networks. Finally it provides illusory opportunities to cross into Europe for people fleeing poverty and political instability from countries like Somalia, Eritrea, or Nigeria. The escalation of IS violence and its spreading through guerrillas or infiltrators in Libya, through terrorists in Tunisia, and into other states, further exacerbates these trends.
The current pressures stemming from both asylum seekers and irregular migrants will not cease any time soon. There will not be a massive exodus, but the numbers will continue to be sustained. The European Union cannot manage this situation with the toolkit of the 1990s, notably the Dublin Regulation (that despite reforms remains pretty much identical to its initial concept drafted in 1990) and the emphasis on returning failed asylum seekers and apprehended irregular migrants. The approach that is needed is one that is more strategic and multi-faceted.
Irregular migration in the Mediterranean: a four point plan of action
Some commentators have called for a naval blockade of Libya, arguing that this would discourage the smuggling networks and provide relief to immediately neighbouring countries, notably Italy and Greece, while stopping the deaths of innocent people. However such an operation would risk transforming Libya in the short run into a quasi-concentration camp. Until word spread that the route was blocked, people from sub Saharan Africa would continue to arrive and, with the cost of securing safe passage rising, these individuals would be at risk of being jailed, tortured or exploited by the smugglers, militias and other groups active in the area.
Instead, the EU needs to work with a combined toolkit. First, it must intensify its search and rescue operations, chiefly by implementing a European ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation before the end of this year. This would need to be on a larger and more ambitious scale than the current ‘Triton’ operation led by the EU’s external border security agency Frontex, which has proven to be under staffed and under financed. Ignoring the situation would not tame the flow of migrants, but rather simply increase the loss of human life in the Mediterranean (which is now by far the deadliest sea crossing for migration or asylum seeking worldwide).
Second, in addition to this enhanced search and rescue operation, the EU needs to enrol the support and cooperation of neighbouring countries in the Mediterranean, notably Egypt and Tunisia, as well as Turkey. It should also seek to win the support of countries of origin and transit outside of the region, notably in southeast Asia, and West and East Africa. Development aid as well as technological assistance and training is needed to boost the border guard capacity and ability to fight organised crime in these countries.
Third, alongside these approaches, there is a need for further sophistication in the fight against organised crime, notably smuggling networks which usually collide with drug trafficking and the underground arms trade. Working locally in cooperation with transit countries, particularly in Turkey and Syria, to dismantle the operations of the smuggling networks that make the smuggling business so dynamic and flexible, should be an area of priority.
Last but not least, there is a need for essential reform of the Dublin system. The so called ‘first safe country’ principle, under which the state in which an asylum seeker entered the EU is usually responsible for their claim, can no longer hold. This system only creates returnees and further exacerbates tensions within the EU between the ‘first safe countries’ of arrival in the south, and the ‘safer’ countries in the north, that still nevertheless face significant asylum seeker inflows despite the Dublin safeguards. A more efficient system of asylum quotas is required for a fairer sharing of responsibility that would do justice both to the efforts of the “frontier” states like Italy, Malta, and Greece, but also to the northern countries that receive the highest number of asylum applications.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Anna Triandafyllidou – European University Institute
Anna Triandafyllidou is Professor at the Global Governance Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) at the European University Institute.
I recently read an interview to a young man from Mali recounting his three-year odyssey which brought him from the suburbs of Bamako to his new (temporary) home in a hosting centre from asylum seekers in Sicily. It really made me think that there is out there (outside of our ‘safe’ borders) a whole humanity of young men and women that will stop at nothing in their chase of the dream of a new life. The unknown this young man was prepared to venture into, whatever perilous and hostile, was way better than what he had left behind. I was not so much struck by the hardship he had e to endure during their journey (our livestock transport services are significantly more human) as by the length of time he was prepared to withstand in such hardship without giving up hope. Three years of misery and suffering when everyday can be your last. And yet, there’s no way back. The very idea is not an even an option. In our westen societies where people want it all and want it now, when even queueing 20 minutes at the post office or answering a survey interview is ill-tolerated and perceived as an harassing burden, this young man appears to me like a superhuman in his strength and resolve. He is endowed with all the virtues (courage,stamina,youth,desire,ambition) to withstand and win any challenges and make a better life for thimself. Django, this is the name of the Malian young man, now picks up oranges at 5 euro a day and so he able to by a second-hand bycicle to reach the orchards every morning at sunrise and come back to the hosting centre at sunset. Meanwhile he waits for his asylum request to be processed. He wants to go to Norway. I have little doubt he will succeed. His quest for a life at last has only just started and the only way is up, for him and for the thousands of his fellow dreamers. Apologies for a very long introduction. The conclusion will be brief: the authors list 4 key actions to be undertaken in order to mitigate the emergency from the inflow of irregular migrants from the poor South of the world. Well, laudable and shareable though they are (e.g.advocating a return to the Italian Mare Nostrum) I see only one real solution, however drastic it may seem: open our frontiers and redeploy our brains and resources from thinking on ways to mitigate or regulate the inflow to how best absorbe and integrate this extraordinary humanity into our societies. We can’t stop this tide, but we can all benefit from it (which is altogether different from profiting from it as we are doing nowdays). Best, Luca
I observe that the author used region – “tackling the smuggling networks active in the region” and not regions. This to me is indicating that the trafficking network is a one region thing i.e. Africa. What about the possibility or obvious reality of having networks in both Africa and Europe, with the controllers being in Europe. Any thought to the mafia in Italy and elsewhere. What about those in the Middle East who ensure they are moved from the conflict zones to the mediterranean shore. To every supply there is a demand side. What about the demand side of trafficking, those who use them for cheap labour in the farms and elsewhere and those who go after the prostitutes.
The EU foreign policy leading to instability in Africa and the ME. Guess that needs reviewing too. Might could be right but the consequences are most often not pleasant.
More on this later if and when I have time. But I believe there are many more key issues that Europe need to address.
@Bob. There are many things that can be said about the current migration crisis involving the Mediterranean and the entirety of Europe. This article fails to address most of them. You raise some points, that I will try to answer.
(1) First of all, don’t use the term trafficking. It is technically smuggling with some elements of extortion and coercion. The UN distinction between smuggling and trafficking is looking less and less useful, as time goes one: but this is not trafficking, whatever the useless politicians claim.
(2) The networks are not in one region at all. They are to some extent global, and to some extent local. They are everywhere, and involve powerful players in every country. In some countries, they involve the highest ranks of the police and security services; in most, they involve the lower ranks. In my former research centre, the Mediterranean Migration Observatory, I conducted interviews with informants — on request from a European state security service. The information about smuggling is fairly clear: it involves everyone. If you confine your research to the migrants (as all academics tend to, even with massively funded projects) you get limited info and distortions. For example, the smuggled migrants are not supposed to know who organises things, who is paid off, who is pulling the strings. Yet, from informants we know that smuggled migrants have handlers of the same ethnic group; that there is no overall co-ordination, because there are national territories with strong police controls; that European corruption plays a central role in the migrati9on flows…
(3) The biggest management problem, apart from the obvious physical issues and numbers, is that these are mixed flows — that is, some with strong claim to humanitarian protection, others with less, some with none but looking for a better life (e.g. economic migrants). At the moment, my info is that about 80% of the arrivals to Greece (some 80,000 already in 2015) have a strong case for protection; and about 50% of the flows into Italy this year (a similar number). The major nationality is Syrian.
However, what is not obvious is that Europe has caused this crisis. No academics seem to be aware of the reality of defective policies in Europe since about 1985. This all dates back to the origins of “Fortress Europe” and the security mentality of our brain-damaged politicians. Instead of accepting an orderly management of genuine refugees, validated by UNHCR and allowed to come to Europe, we embarked on a requirement of disorderly spontaneous asylum-seeking. We then tried to stop genuine asylum-seekers from arriving in European countries — with visa requirements, and other controls against “illegal migration”. At a stroke, European politicians created the problem of genuine refugees having to migrate as illegal migrants, since they are denied the possibility to escape as refugees.
Now, we have about 2,000 arriving per day in Italy and Greece. The mixed flows are impossible to manage, even for a rich developed country — let alone Greece in crisis. Northern Europe wants to do nothing, and the UK complains about a stock of around 2,000 people in Calais trying to get into the UK. 2,000 in total, in contrast to 1,000 per day in Greece. Most of the new arrivals have the destination of Germany and Sweden — two countries that have accepted some (but not enough) refugees. The most irresponsible country in the northern EU is the UK — which has the same mentality as Poland, Hungary and other former communist bloc states. Their idea is: we don’t like immigrants, we don’t accept refugees, and we are going to close our borders and build fences and blah blah.
Until the EU accepts joint responsibility for handling external immigration and humanitarian flows, and agrees on the allocation of responsibility across the EU, this chaos will continue. But we have seen that there is no agreement over anything, including the eurozone catastrophe. This will remain a major problem for a long time.