Up to 1,200 people are believed to have died this past week when, in several incidents, their flimsy boats foundered in the Mediterranean. These migrants from Syria, Mali, Eritrea, Somalia and beyond had set out from North Africa hoping to reach Europe’s southern shores. Fleeing war and poverty, most had paid large sums to traffickers.
The scale of the tragedies is shocking but no novelty. It is estimated that since 1993 some 20,000 migrants have died trying to cross Europe’s southern borders. The true figure is undoubtedly higher: Thousands have perished, their deaths unrecorded.
Who is to blame? European politicians point the finger at traffickers. On Monday, European Union officials came up with a 10-point plan, including military action against smuggling networks.
The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril. But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.
For more than three decades, the European Union has been constructing what critics call “Fortress Europe,” a cordon protected by sea, air and land patrols, and a high-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the European border agency, he observed that the language used was that of “defending Europe against an enemy.”
The decision last year to scrap Mare Nostrum, the Italian-run search-and-rescue program, highlights this strategy. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Operation Triton, smaller in scope and with an entirely different aim — not saving lives but surveillance and border protection. The number of migrants now attempting to reach Europe is little different from that for the same period last year, yet the death toll is about 18 times higher.
When the European Union treats immigration as a problem of criminality, it is not just the traffickers who are targets. In 2004, a German ship rescued 37 African refugees from a dinghy. When the ship entered a Sicilian port, it was seized by the authorities who charged the captain and first officer with aiding illegal immigration. They were acquitted only after a five-year court battle.
Similarly, in 2007, the Italian authorities tried to block two Tunisian fishing boats that had rescued 44 stranded migrants from docking at Lampedusa, an island between Sicily and Tunisia. The captains were charged with assisting illegal immigration. Not until 2011 did an appeals court overturn all the convictions.
Such cases are not aberrations. Treating good Samaritans as common criminals is the inevitable consequence of the European Union’s immigration policy.
The third prong of the strategy is to outsource border controls by paying African states to detain potential migrants. The most notorious of these arrangements was with Libya. In 2010, a year before Britain and France launched airstrikes to help bring down Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the European Union concluded a deal with him, agreeing to pay 50 million euros over three years to turn his security forces into de facto border police. Even before they gained power, the anti-Qaddafi rebels agreed to continue the arrangement.
The European Union has a similar deal with Morocco, and hopes to recruit Egypt and Tunisia, too. In effect, it aims to relocate Europe’s borders to North Africa.
The 10-point plan that the European authorities proposed Monday was in keeping with this failed approach. Most eye-catching was the promise to destroy smugglers’ boats. Not only is this morally dubious — effectively telling migrants “We will wall you into North Africa so that you’re not our problem” — but it also won’t work. One reason for the spike in migrant numbers is the collapse of state authority in the region. Western intervention in Libya exacerbated the chaos, which the proposed military action will only intensify.
At the same time, migrants are forced to clamber into overloaded, unseaworthy boats because other routes into Europe have been blocked off. Destroying smugglers’ boats will merely force people to adopt even more perilous means of making the journey.
So what is to be done? The restoration of a proper search-and-rescue operation is important but insufficient. The European Union should stop treating migrants as criminals, and border control as warfare. It must dismantle Fortress Europe, liberalize immigration policy and open up legal routes for migrants. Some argue this would lead to a flood of immigrants, but current policy is not preventing people from migrating; it is simply killing them, by the boatload.
Fortress Europe has created not just a physical barrier around the Continent but an emotional barricade around Europe’s sense of humanity, too. Until that changes, the Mediterranean will continue to be a migrants’ graveyard. Come the next tragedy, we should remember: Our politicians could have helped prevent this, but chose not to.
Kenan Malik, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most recently, of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics.