Mon, Feb 09, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Rethinking ‘Fortress Europe’ amid deteriorating migrant crisis

Attempts to stop refugees from conflict areas from entering the EU have simply caused them to find other avenues — which often turn out to be dangerous

By Kevin Watkins

There is something rotten about the EU’s debate on migration. The continent’s political leaders, paralyzed by the rise of anti-immigrant populism, are turning their backs on desperately vulnerable people fleeing war, human-rights abuses and economic collapse.

Nowhere is the human cost of European policies more visible than in the Mediterranean Sea. The waters between Europe and Africa are the world’s deadliest migration route. About 300,000 people are estimated to have made the crossing last year — more than twice as many as in 2013. About 3,000 died from drowning, hunger, exposure or asphyxiation.

Most migrants set out from Libya, which has emerged as the center of a multimillion US dollar human trafficking industry. Until recently, most migrants setting out for Italy made the crossing on small vessels. However, in a new twist, Italian authorities at the beginning of this year rescued hundreds of migrants, including pregnant women and dozens of children, aboard an aging steel-hulled freighter. The crew had jumped ship.

Given its close proximity to a deadly conflict in Syria and nations marked by extreme poverty, human rights abuses and weak or collapsed states and economies, the EU is inevitably a magnet for migrants and asylum seekers. That is why it needs a migration policy that reflects the values on which it was founded. Unfortunately, respect for human life has taken a back seat to baser political calculations.

Consider Europe’s approach to search-and-rescue operations. In November last year, Italy suspended its Mare Nostrum rescue operation (which it launched in 2013, after more than 300 migrants drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa), because other EU member states refused to share the costs — about 9 million euros (US$10.2 million) per month. In its place, the EU border agency, Frontex, has begun conducting a limited coastal mission called Operation Triton.

Why the reluctance to share the cost of humanitarian rescue operations? Senior ministers in the UK and other northern European countries, relying on little more than armchair behavioral economics, argued that Mare Nostrum encouraged more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. In other words, allowing children to drown is a legitimate deterrent. Back in the real world, the desperation and aspiration driving people to flee outweigh the risks posed by the crossing — meaning that the closure of Mare Nostrum would do nothing to reduce the number of people attempting the journey to Europe.

However, Europe’s debate on migration is so toxic that the forces actually causing people to move are seldom discussed. According to Frontex, about a quarter of the migrants who crossed the Mediterranean last year were Syrian families escaping the civil war there. Young Eritreans — fleeing a nation that imposes indefinite military conscription on dissidents — made up another quarter. Many others came from poor, violence-prone nations: Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Mali and Nigeria.

Faced with a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean, the EU has responded by trying to build a fortress. It has invested heavily in a fenced border between Turkey and Greece. Amnesty International has documented the widespread practice of pushing back migrants and refugees attempting to cross into Greece and Bulgaria — a practice that contravenes international law.

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