The summer dying season is underway. It began in earnest late last month when, under a bright Mediterranean sun that cast the sea a sparkling blue, a fishing trawler teetered on its side before giving in to the panicked bodies on board, tipping them into the swell. The Italian Coast Guard caught the moment on camera. On the shore of another continent, the bodies of mostly women and children washed up on a Libyan beach, victims of one of three shipwrecks that killed at least 700 people in three days.
With the Balkans route largely shut down thanks to a deal between the European Union and Turkey that may violate international law, more people are embarking on more dangerous voyages from Libya or Egypt. A result is at least 2,861 deaths so far this year, up from 1,838 in roughly the same period in 2015. But with the fresh images of human suffering comes an uncomfortable reality: The men, women and children who survive this grueling journey will not be welcomed with the same compassion as the Syrians and Iraqis who have come before them, because a majority hail from Africa.
Like the smugglers who put the poorer sub-Saharan Africans in the holds of trawlers while giving the Syrians the upper deck, Europe has its own two-tier system. The European Union draws a distinction between a genuine refugee and an economic migrant, and people coming from the world’s poorest continent are generally assumed to be the latter. It is a narrative of the “good” migrant and the “bad” one that leads to policies focused on keeping people out and ignores a more nuanced reality.
Twenty-six percent of the world’s refugees are in sub-Saharan Africa. The largest number of migrants to arrive in Italy so far this year are Eritreans, who are fleeing a dictatorship that the United Nations has accused of crimes against humanity. The second biggest group is Nigerians. The International Organization for Migration has told me that at least 80 percent of Nigerian women and girls are trafficked for sexual exploitation. And many of the people trying to reach Europe this year are not fleeing conflict in their own lands, but in Libya, where they have suffered kidnapping, torture and imprisonment.
These facts rarely make the news. Sometimes the prejudice is implicit. Representatives of the aid agencies that try to raise the alarm over the death toll in the Mediterranean tell me they are asked, “But have Syrians started coming on the Libya-Italy route yet?” Journalists and policy makers don’t seem to care otherwise. Other times it is explicit. Last year, the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, referred to African migrants as “marauding.” He told the BBC, “Europe can’t protect itself and preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa.”
Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was more blunt about Europe’s prejudices in 2010, when he asked the European Union for five billion euros to stop people leaving Libya. “Europe might no longer be European, and even black, as there are millions who want to come in,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen, what will be the reaction of the white and Christian Europeans faced with this influx of starving and ignorant Africans.”
Colonel Qaddafi’s racist fearmongering seemed to work. The European Union agreed to pay him 60 million euros, despite reports that he was transporting unwanted refugees to remote outposts in the Sahara and leaving them to die. It was one of many policies that led to more deaths while failing to stem the flow. In 2014, Italy stopped a lifesaving naval operation called Mare Nostrum when other European Union countries refused to help fund it. After some 800 people died in a shipwreck in April 2015, the European Union began an anti-smuggling operation, but a report by a British parliamentary committee in May found it had put more lives at risk as smugglers started packing people in rubber dinghies rather than sturdier fishing boats to evade detection.
Europe cannot be expected to offer a home to every person fleeing poverty or persecution, and European Union governments are right to try to come up with policies that deter people from making the voyage. But these policies need to be focused on the human rights of migrants whether they hail from Africa or the Middle East. A person’s nationality cannot become shorthand for his or her worth.
First, people need to be rescued at sea. A dedicated search and rescue operation on the model of Mare Nostrum should restart. The European Union should also establish humane reception centers where a person’s claim is assessed, and those with no right to be in Europe can be returned to a safe country. More legal channels for applying for work or asylum from outside the European Union will stop people risking their lives, while countries in Africa and the Middle East hosting large refugee communities should be offered closely monitored financial and practical support. European Union resettlement schemes need to apply to all people granted asylum, not just the Syrians provided for under the Turkey deal.
But instead, the European Union is looking into recycling the same old policies: forcing people back to Libya, and channeling money to the governments people are fleeing. In 2014, people crossing the Mediterranean had about a one in 60 chance of dying. Today, those odds are said to be one in 23. That shows just how little Europe has learned from its mistakes.
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is the author of Cast Away: Stories of Survival From Europe’s Refugee Crisis.