Skip to main content

On the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa stands a graveyard filled with simple wooden crosses. We don’t know the names and stories of those buried there, except that they perished at sea trying to reach Europe, fleeing conflict in Syria, human-rights abuses in Somalia and Eritrea, poverty in West Africa.

Over the last decade, an estimated 20,000 people have died attempting to make the crossing. Last year was the deadliest on record, with more than 3,500 drowning or succumbing to hunger, thirst, or cold.

The number of deaths would have been far higher had it not been for the efforts of the Italian navy. After a deadly shipwreck in October of 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa, in which more than 350 people drowned—an incident the pope described as a moral failure—Italy deployed its navy in a major rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, Latin for “our sea.” The operation extended almost to the coast of Libya, from where many of the rickety boats embark. They rescued tens of thousands of people.

The Italian government has repeatedly asked member states of the European Union to share responsibility for rescue efforts. The EU is supposed to have a common asylum policy. But there was no appetite in Europe’s capitals for a pan-European effort, in part because of concerns that Mare Nostrum was acting as a pull factor. Instead, European governments collectively resolved to focus on deterring departures, combating the smuggling that makes these crossings possible, and addressing the “root causes” of migration in countries of origin.

In October of 2014, Italy finally concluded, for political and financial reasons, that it was not possible to continue with operation Mare Nostrum alone. The EU’s proposed alternative, Operation Triton, focuses more narrowly on border security—not saving lives. Coordinated by the EU border agency, Frontex, Triton has far fewer ships at its disposal than the Italian navy. And it is confined to Italian waters, so it cannot help vessels in distress nearer the Libyan coast.

The only saving grace was that, by the time Mare Nostrum was winding down, it was November, the end of the traditional spring and summer crossing season, as deteriorating weather and rough seas deter smugglers and migrants alike.

Only this year, the boats have continued to cross well into the winter months—with deadly results.

In late December and early January, there were several crossings via large commercial ships, more capable of managing the rough seas. The smugglers set these boats carrying up to 800 people on a course from Turkey to Italy, and then jumped ship, leaving them without a crew. Fortunately, no one was killed. But these “ghost ships” mark a dangerous new development in the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

In January, there was a new wave of departures from Libya. In early February, more than 300 people died in rough seas. Twenty-nine of the victims had actually been rescued by the Italian coast guard, but died of exposure on the way back to port.

On February 15, the Italians rescued 1,000 people on a single day. And worsening security situation in Libya is helping to drive departures.

Of the 19,000 people rescued since November, only 6,000 were rescued by Operation Triton. Italy is still doing most of the grunt work. But the numbers also show that the pull-factor argument is specious. People are making the crossing despite the fact that there is now little promise of rescue. Even if rescue were shown to be a measurable pull, it is surely a moral failure unworthy of Europe to let some migrants drown in order to deter others.

So, what should the EU do about it?

There is nothing wrong with border control or enforcement efforts. Smugglers who deliberately kill migrants, as happened in September when survivors said a boat carrying 500 people was deliberately sunk, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But merely curbing smuggling will reduce supply without impeding demand, and is likely to raise the price of the journey, making migrants more vulnerable to exploitation once they reach Europe, as they struggle to repay the fare of crossing.

Addressing root causes is, broadly speaking, a laudable objective. But resolving the conflict in Syria, or ending human-rights abuse in Eritrea, is not going to happen any time soon. Neither aid nor trade is going to eliminate the economic disparity between sub-Saharan Africa and the EU in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, many people will feel that they have no choice but to risk everything to reach a more politically and economically stable Europe.

Without additional efforts, including the use of large vessels capable of traversing and making hundreds of rescues in rough seas, with space for on-the-scene medical treatment, many will die. Since January, the UN high commissioner for refugees, the head of International Organization for Migration, and the Council of Europe’s human-rights commissioner have all called for Europe, as a whole, to step up its Mediterranean rescue operations.

The European Commission announced on Feb. 19 that Operation Triton will continue until the end of 2015, and promised modest cash to assist the Italian navy in its efforts. But what is really needed is an EU-wide Mare Nostrum. That would require support from major EU governments, like France, Germany and the UK, entailing a willingness to supply naval assets and funding. With that kind of joint effort, the Italian navy could contribute fiscally proportionate assets and expertise. So far, such solidarity has been sadly absent.

Additionally, it is necessary to provide mechanisms to identify political refugees and other vulnerable people in this migration flow to enable them to come to Europe in a safe and orderly manner. Right now a Syrian in danger who wishes to seek refuge in Europe may have little choice but to risk her life to reach the continent by sea. The land routes into Europe, through Greece and Bulgaria via the western Balkans, are extremely difficult to pass through resultant of intensified border control efforts. And those who try it risk detention, abuse from law enforcement, or summary return to Turkey.

Resettlement is a possibility for some refugees from Syria. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is willing to refer 130,000 such cases. But Germany’s generous pledge of 30,000 aside, the numbers accepted in Europe are extremely small, with only 6,000 further places pledged across the EU, and fewer so far honored. That’s a tiny fraction of the more than 3 million refugees that have fled Syria. If all EU governments matched Germany’s pledge pro rata, it would make a real difference.

What about those, such as the Eritreans, who are unable to benefit from current UNHCR resettlement programs? The European Commission has proposed an EU resettlement program that could allow people seeking international protection to register before reaching EU territory. Such a process is not without complications. Will people be safe while their claims are being considered? What happens if they are rejected? Will the places where such offices are located become magnets for people seeking sanctuary? What about screening for national-security risks? It’s also vital that the process not be used to prevent people who reach EU territory from applying for asylum.

But those issues are not insurmountable, provided the biggest obstacle—lack of political will—can be overcome. The nasty politics of immigration in Europe, coupled with a anxieties of footing the bill for those who are rescued, deter EU governments from doing the right thing. That must change.

The EU’s greatest asset is soft power—its ideals and values; a reputation for demanding respect for human rights. Standing by as cemeteries in Lampedusa fill up with the bodies of those lost at sea is not consistent with those values. It is time for Europe to act in accordance with them.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Most Viewed