The recent news that 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean is a tragic reminder that Europe has still failed to come up with a proper plan for the humanitarian crisis taking place on its southern shores. Lampedusa was supposed to be a wake-up call, alerting us to the scale of the crisis and its human cost. Every year thousands die crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of finding safety and a better life. Wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Somalia have thrown our neighbourhood into chaos. While the brunt of the burden is borne by the neighbouring countries, the numbers have exploded, with 3,000 dying in the attempt last year.
In the wake of Lampedusa, the Italian Navy launched its Mare Nostrum mission, patrolling the Mediterranean as both a border security and a humanitarian mission to prevent more death along our shores. The mission was a success, but it was an expensive one for the Italian state to bear in facing what is essentially a European crisis.
The Dublin Regulation system was set in place so that asylum seekers would have to apply for asylum in the EU state that they arrived in. This was to prevent “forum shopping”, where asylum seekers might try to apply in other Member States. The upshot is that Member States with an external border – such as Italy, Malta and Greece – have borne the brunt of the burden. Indeed, in Greece things have become so bad that their facilities and treatment of asylum seekers has been found to be in breach of human rights. Proposals to share the burden more equitably between the North and the South in Europe have rarely received much sympathy from the Northern Member States. Operation Triton, an EU mission led by Frontex, the border agency, replaced Mare Nostrum last year. The EU mission has only a third of the budget of the Italian mission, with 7 boats, 2 planes and 1 helicopter – hardly an adequate patrol for the sea lanes of North Africa. Border patrol and surveillance, rather than search and rescue, is the focus, though as this case shows rescues will be attempted.
There was strong opposition to Triton having the same search and rescue mission as Mare Nostrum. Shockingly, the UK position was that saving lives would make Europe a more attractive destination – effectively arguing that the dangers and death faced by migrants is a good deterrence. It seems that Europe is worryingly content to let its values stop at the border. With thousands dying every year just off our coast, you would think that Triton would be upgraded to a full Mare Nostrum-style mission.