This Sunday a boat carrying about 700 migrants capsized off the coast of Libya. Tragically, only about 30 persons could be saved. EU senior police officials and interior ministers from all the 28 Member States met on Monday in Luxembourg for emergency talks on how to react to the migrant boat tragedies happening in the last few days. The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said “with this latest tragedy (…) we have no more excuses, the EU has no more excuses, the member states have no more excuses”.
According to figures supplied by the International Organization for Migration, the same number of migrants have arrived in Europe in the first three months of 2015 as in the same period of 2014. Nearly 1600 migrants have drowned in the first quarter of 2015, that is thirty times as many as in the same period of 2014. Due to the increased drownings in the Mediterranean, the death rates are estimated to surpass last year’s total of 3,419 deaths.
Earlier this year, the European Commission initiated a work to improve the migration policy. The improvement of the migration policy is today one of the European Commission’s explicit priorities. The Commission’s first Vice-President Frans Timmermans said: “Managing migration well is a challenge for Europe as a whole. It is now time for a fresh approach in the way we work together: we must make better and more coherent use of all our tools, agree common priorities and pool more resources at EU and national levels to achieve real solidarity and a better sharing of responsibility between Member States”.
In October 2013, the Italian Government launched a search and rescue operation called “Mare Nostrum” to tackle the increased migratory flows, the tragic events in Lampedusa and to prevent deaths at sea. The Operation was carried out by 900 Italian navy personnel with vessels that could rescue hundreds of migrants. In October 2014, “Mare Nostrum” was closed and “Operation Triton” was introduced the following day. Triton is a joint operation coordinated by FRONTEX, an agency of the EU that manages the cooperation between national border guards. At the start of the operation 21 Member States of the EU had indicated their willingness to participate with 65 guest officers and technical resources in this joint operation. According to the Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano “Mare Nostrum” was closing down because it had been an emergency operation, only reacting to the tragedy near the island of Lampedusa where 360 African refugees drowned.
The majority of migrants coming to Europe are fleeing Libya and crossing the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this often results in shipwreck due to the bad conditions of their vessels. It is hard to tell what have caused the increased numbers of deaths in the last few months. However, the closure of “Mare Nostrum” must be part of the explanation since, civilian coast guards patrols are struggling to fill the void left by the navy vessels of the Mare Nostrum operation.
The new operation, Triton, is carried out by civilian coast guard patrols instead of Italian navy vessels. These coast guard ships usually operate within 30 nautical miles of the European coast mainly focusing on border controls. Mare Nostrum, in contrast, consisted of bigger and better equipped navy vessels which provided medical care and doctors on board and frequently sailed within the reach of northern Africa. For this main reason a lot more migrants could be saved from vessels in distress which were closer to Libya.
Another factor which has to be taken into consideration is the fact that Mare Nostrum had cost the Italian government 9.5 million euros a month while Operation Triton costs the European Union only 2.9 million euros every month. Therefore the question one can ask is whether the European Union is putting lives at risk just due to financial reasons? This weekend the Süddeutsche Zeitung denounced the EU in this context as a ”union of murderers”, accusing the EU of accepting the death of hundreds of refugees hoping to discourage others from following them.
In March 2015, after the recent events in the Mediterranean and the increased numbers of deaths, the European Commission presented its proposal on a new European Agenda on Migration aiming for a comprehensive European migration policy. The commission has set out four main areas where actions are envisaged in the Agenda to implement the existing tools and operation in managing migration flows from third countries: A strong common Asylum System, a new European policy on legal migration, fighting irregular migration and human trafficking more robustly, and securing Europe’s external borders. The Commission will present the new agenda in May 2015. It is expected to strengthen the common asylum system by acting more vigorously against irregular migration and securing Europe’s external borders.
The EU and its Member States must increase the operational capacities of the European border agency FRONTEX to secure its borders. The migration influx problem is a joint responsibility of all European Member States and therefore, national resources must be gathered and used to reinforce the work of FRONTEX. That is to protect Europe’s common borders and ensure a quick and effective response to massive uncontrolled influx of illegal migrants.
One of the EU’s primary tasks today is to set up a budget that allows border guard teams to operate at least according to the same standards as the Mare Nostrum operation. The Member States of the EU must also act in solidarity and must therefore intensify their participation in joint operations controlling the external borders and illegal migration.
by Mathias Davatz, Stephanie Vinkler and Kristé Zvinklyté