The news that 400 would-be illegal migrants have died after their boat capsized off Libya has brought the issue of migration into Europe to a head. But what can be done about it?
The perils facing migrants from Africa and the Middle East trying to get to Europe across the Mediterranean has once again shot to prominence when it emerged that as many as 400 people died after their vessel capsized off Libya. The toll adds to a string of fatal incidents already this year, which is threatening to eclipse last year’s record of more than 3,000 dead: according to Melissa Fleming of UNHCR, around 900 people are already dead or missing, compared to 17 at the same point last year.
With economic decay, war, persecution and unemployment gripping at least a dozen countries on Europe’s southern rim, the surge of migration north has overwhelmed authorities in Europe, which has struggled to articulate a single coherent policy and, say critics, played into the hands of unscrupulous people traffickers.
How this happened
It is not necessarily an exaggeration to characterise the scale of would-be migrants arriving illegally in Europe as a permanent crisis but even within this context 2015 is looking like a particularly difficult year. Thousands were saved last year by Italy’s search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, but that unit was stood down last autumn, replaced by a European operation with a much flimsier mandate.
The volume of migrants is, as ever, a result of many different factors. Many thousands arrive every year from sub-Saharan Africa, notably Eritrea and Somalia, fleeing economic chaos, war and human rights abuses. More recently the numbers have been swollen by ever more people escaping conflict and civil breakdown in Libya and Syria. More than 120,000 Syrians have arrived in Europe since 2011, according to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. This is a large number, but nonetheless a small proportion of the 3 million or so Syrians who have fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey.
The key issues
The complexity of criminal networks
The networks that bring people from war-torn nations to the African shores of the Mediterranean and then onto boats are not just necessarily criminal. They are also multinational, informal and ever-changing, with the migrants themselves having minimal contact with the organising gangs. Palestinian survivors of one tragedy recounted arranging their passage via a “travel office” in Gaza, making their own way to the Egyptian port of Damietta on tourist visas, before being taken by bus to a ship, and then once at sea switching vessels three times. This is likely to be a trail too complex to crack.
Funding rescue operations
Mare Nostrum lasted almost a year, at a cost to the Italian navy of around €9m (£7.15m) a month, a burden the country was understandably keen to share among its neighbours and allies. The replacement EU force, called Triton, is operating with a third of the Mare Nostrum budget, and questions have been raised over its capacity to monitor over 30,000 square miles of sea.
Impact of geopolitics on migrant routes
Frontex’s annual reports illustrate the longer-term pattern of attempted illegal entry into Europe: while the routes remain constant their relative popularity ebbs and flows due to a combination of factors. In 2012, for example, many more migrants entered using land crossings into Greece and Bulgaria, the so-called eastern Mediterranean route, whereas in 2009 the most numbers arrived via Kosovo and Albania. Last year, as the series of boat sinkings show, the great majority were seeking to reach southern Europe by sea, mainly Italy but also Malta or Greece.