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Those paper boats

European reaction to sinking of migrant ship has all the trappings of a farce.

Written by Radha Kapoor Sharma |
April 24, 2015 12:21:25 am
The immediate priority should be the saving of lives by restarting and strengthening Mare Nostrum. The immediate priority should be the saving of lives by restarting and strengthening Mare Nostrum.

Every year as winter recedes in Europe and crocuses and daffodils push through the earth, on the other side of the Mediterranean, hope rises anew in the breast of many a migrant — the season of sea crossings begins once more. They come from Africa and the Middle East and are willing to risk life and limb in rickety boats to flee extreme hardship, disease and conflict. In a double-or-quits gamble, they sink all their savings in pursuit of a better life for themselves or their children. Unfortunately, many never make it to their promised land.

The statistics are stark — 22,000 people are believed to have died attempting the crossing since 2000; a record 3,419 in 2014 alone. But with war, chaos and unrest engulfing countries like Libya, Nigeria and Yemen, apart from Syria and Iraq, the mass of people waiting to take flight shows no sign of abating. The initial trickle has swelled to a flood of people desperate to escape not just poverty but also the Islamic State and Boko Haram. With over 1,700 drownings already, 2015 seems likely to set a new body-count record.

How many boats have to capsize and how many bodies have to plunge to a watery grave in the Mediterranean before the European Union sits up and takes serious notice of the migrant crisis? The critical number seems to have been reached now, with over 800 feared dead after a large boat sank off the coast of Libya on Saturday night, in addition to the 400 who drowned a few days earlier.

European leaders suddenly emerged from other preoccupations to make solemn statements with grim faces. British Prime Minister David Cameron described the latest disaster as a “dark day for Europe”, while French President François Hollande called it the “worst disaster in the Mediterranean these last few years”. Hollande further asserted that the human traffickers were “terrorists” for knowingly smuggling migrants on “rotten boats”. Both leaders condemned the smugglers as being primarily responsible for this tragedy and issued a strong call for action.

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The official reactions of the UK, France and other European countries have all the trappings of a farce. The issue of clandestine migrants trying desperately to make it to Europe across the Mediterranean in perilous conditions and grossly unseaworthy boats has been festering for close to a decade. And in a typical reaction to an eyesore, the European Union had largely responded so far by averting its eyes, with Italy bearing the brunt of a broad search and rescue effort.

The Italian government’s praiseworthy operation, Mare Nostrum, a naval and coastguard rescue mission, started in October 2013 as an emergency solution in the aftermath of a shipwreck and funded by Rome alone, saved over 1,50,000 lives but was, alas, not sustainable. It was replaced by the more-limited and lower-cost Triton, an EU-coordinated security operation that patrols only 30 miles off the Italian coast. In its obsession with cost cutting while securing its southern borders, Europe seems to have lost sight of the humanitarian aspect of the issue. To justify their position, many European states claim that the existence of search and rescue missions was encouraging migrants and acting as an incentive for them to attempt the crossing — a specious argument. The number of people attempting the crossing has risen dramatically in spite of the cutbacks in these missions.

Budgetary considerations alone have not impacted the EU’s stance. Under pressure from increasingly shrill, anti-immigrant voices at home — the Ukip in the UK, the Front National in France and Pegida in Germany — political parties and governments have adopted a harder line on immigration and tighter border controls. Europe, with a combined population of roughly 740 million, appeared burdened to receive 2,60,000 asylum requests last year. In the meantime, a small country like Lebanon with a population of under five million is supporting 1.3 million refugees, Jordan, roughly 8,00,000, and Turkey, 1.7 million.

The need of the hour is concerted European and international action. The immediate priority should be saving lives by restarting and strengthening Mare Nostrum, coupled with a severe crackdown on migrant-smugglers, ensuring their prosecution and punishment. Opening an “official humanitarian corridor”, as called for by the mayor of Catania in Sicily, to enable controlled immigration could be a first step.

However, in this era of unprecedented turmoil and conflict, Europe needs to live up to its values and open wide its doors to those whose lives are threatened by increasing the avenues of legal migration. The number of resettlement countries in Europe as well as country quotas would have to be increased and temporary migration-processing centres set up in countries of origin and transit. Alternatives, such as Turkey’s “temporary protection regime”, which it has extended to Syrian refugees, could be explored.

And, of course, without the root causes being tackled, migrants are going to continue to consider Europe a haven. These are complex, long-term issues that extend well beyond Europe and require the involvement of the UN as well as close cooperation between all countries of migrant origin, transit and destination.

Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based writer.

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