Over the last two days, news emerged of three separate shipwrecks in the Mediterranean with the unbearable estimate of 700 presumed dead. The few survivors of the worst incident told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Italian police that smugglers deliberately rammed their boat when migrants objected to being transferred to what looked like an even less seaworthy vessel, a particularly heinous act by human smugglers already known for unscrupulous and sometimes deadly practices.
We can only hope that the investigations by the IOM and Italian authorities lead to prosecutions. But dangerous boat migration in the Mediterranean cannot be reduced to criminal behavior by smugglers alone, and limiting the response to law enforcement and border control will put more lives at risk.
Many factors feed into boat migration – fear of persecution in Eritrea, dying under bombs in Syria and Gaza, drought and lawlessness in Somalia, poverty and conflict in South Sudan, and similar causes in scores of other places. The lies and threats of traffickers, the breakdown of societies, and the economic disparities can seem impossible to tackle in a meaningful, humane way. But here are two concrete ways the European Union can reduce the odds of another tragedy at sea.
First, the EU should create safe and legal avenues for refugees and asylum seekers to seek protection in Europe rather than risk their lives on the perilous crossing by sea. To date, EU policies have focused largely on enforcing borders – keeping people out – rather than ensuring access to safety for those who need it. The EU Home Affairs Commissioner asked the member states in July to consider humanitarian visas or allow asylum applications in third countries. Both ideas merit adoption.
Second, the EU should not downgrade its rescue efforts at sea. The Italian Navy operation Mare Nostrum, launched last October after two deadly shipwrecks, has brought tens of thousands of people safely to Italian shores. Critics say the operation has encouraged boat migration, yet more than half of those who have made the journey are fleeing human rights abuse in Eritrea and war in Syria. The prospect that Mare Nostrum will be replaced soon by “Frontex Plus,” a far more limited operation by the EU’s border agency, raises the specter of a rising death toll (already at nearly 3,000 so far this year).
Going after the criminals directly responsible for hundreds of deaths is important. Changing EU policies to prevent thousands more is vital.