The feared drowning of almost 700 people, asylum-seekers from mostly sub-Saharan Africa, 100-odd kilometres off the coast of Libya, may turn out to be the single worst migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea. More than 900 migrants have reportedly died in the Mediterranean already this year. According to the UNHCR, approximately 2,19,000 migrants, including refugees, crossed the Mediterranean last year, with a loss of at least 3,500 lives. The latest disaster has called attention, once more, to the need for an effective migrant policy from the European Union.
The EU hasn’t managed to get its 28 member states to agree on a common programme to take on the human trafficking gangs that profit from charging exorbitantly for ferrying people illegally to southern Europe. This has left matters in the hands of individual states, such as Italy and Greece, which are usually the first destinations for asylum-seekers, given traffickers’ preference for the central and eastern Mediterranean routes. Italy’s Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue programme saved almost 1,60,000 lives in a year, before it was discontinued last November due to budgetary cuts and complaints from other EU states that it was encouraging migrants to make the perilous journey. It was replaced by Triton, launched by the EU’s border control agency, Frontex, but on a third of the budget, without its own vessels and surveillance.
To the EU’s credit, it recognises the need to punish the traffickers and not their victims. However, it’s doubtful whether the EU has the capacity or inclination to undertake a naval blockade of the north African coast to stop these “death boats” before they set sail. Of late, the largest number of refugees have been fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq, while Libyans are escaping their strife-torn, ungovernable country. Ultimately, what Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat dramatically referred to as a “genocide” in the seas will not abate till conflicts across the African continent and West Asia are resolved.