62 people are dead off the coast of Italy. How many more will anti-migrant policies kill?

Italian authorities at the scene of the shipwreck in Steccato di Cutro, Calabria, on 26 February 2023. Photograph: Alessandro Serranò/AGF/REX/Shutterstock
Italian authorities at the scene of the shipwreck in Steccato di Cutro, Calabria, on 26 February 2023. Photograph: Alessandro Serranò/AGF/REX/Shutterstock

The photograph of the body of two-year-old Alan Kurdi lying on Turkish shores made headlines in 2015. “Never again”, cried an outraged international press, after Kurdi and his Syrian family drowned attempting to reach safety in Europe.

The latest tragedy in the Mediterranean, claiming the lives of at least 62 individuals, including children, is a stark reminder that nothing has changed. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, expressed “deep sorrow”. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, warned that the tragedy should leave “no one indifferent” and appealed to the European Union. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, promised to “redouble the efforts”.

There is no doubting their personal sincerity. And yet, the institutions they preside over bear responsibility for the continuing loss of life in the Mediterranean sea. European migration policy continues to condemn more than 2,000 men, women and children to death in the Mediterranean each and every year.

Meloni’s government has actively sabotaged the NGO-led search and rescue missions attempting to save lives at sea. Under her government’s new legislation, boats that have rescued migrants onboard cannot remain at sea to continue their mission. They must go to assigned ports based in northern Italy by Italian authorities, days of sailing away from the main theatre of operations. This has resulted in a drastic reduction of the time the vessels can engage in saving lives, and surely a corresponding increase in the death rate.

Europe, however, has a deeper responsibility for the loss of lives in the Mediterranean sea. The boat that capsized off the coast of Calabria was coming from distant Turkey. Why did it not try to dock in much closer Greece? The reason is twofold. In 2016 the German government, then presided over by Angela Merkel, agreed a migration deal with Turkey that, to this day, showers Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s illiberal regime with European money in exchange for allowing any refugee who arrives in Greece irregularly from Turkey to be sent back there.

In addition, the European Union has been busy helping Balkan countries to invest in policing and border management. Taken together, the routes to Europe via Turkey, Greece or the Balkans have been sealed off, encouraging migrants to travel farther west towards Italy.

Meloni, astutely, claims she merely wishes to replicate in northern Africa what Europe has already agreed with Turkey and the Balkans. Europe, she says, should seal agreements to lock migrants in before they make their journey.

This system is partly already in place: hundreds of thousands of migrants are illegally detained in makeshift concentration camps in Libya run by militias, where torture and rape are well documented. This measure was agreed in 2017 by the social-democratic Italian government of Paolo Gentiloni, currently the EU commissioner for economic affairs. However immoral Meloni’s policies may be, their immorality is shared by Italian and European institutions alike.

Could things be different? Yes. Hundreds of NGOs, civil platforms and municipalities have for years gathered proposals for a different European approach to migration. A European search and rescue mission should take matters in public hands and run regular operations in the Mediterranean sea.

Migrants saved at sea should be redistributed across the EU and agreements between states should be accompanied by a greater role for municipalities. Why is it that France should block, say, Montpellier from welcoming rescued migrants?

As the Italian search and rescue mission Mediterranea argues, illegal human trafficking exists only because there are no legal channels for migration to Europe. The EU needs to define yearly quotas for job-seeking visas and arrange for the paperwork to be handled by its consulates across the world. Germany, with its recent steps towards extending work visas directly in Ghana, shows the way. Many will prefer a waiting list, however long, to a life-threatening two-year crossing of desert and sea.

Finally, circular migration schemes need to be drastically increased. Migration is never a good solution for countries of origin, leading to a brain drain and breaking up communities. Circularity of labour enables migrants to come to the EU for a limited period on a regular basis. Spain, for instance, plans to train and employ a group of Moroccan truck drivers, expanding on tried and tested schemes in the agricultural sector.

The latest migration tragedy causes grief and anger to any human being and represents another stain on the conscience of any European. We should, however, look with suspicion to any politician offering empathy as a response. We don’t need any more tears. We need policies to change.

Lorenzo Marsili is a philosopher, activist and founder of European Alternatives and Fondazione Studio Rizoma. He is the author of Planetary Politics: a Manifesto.

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