Unless we take coordinated action, there will be more tragedies in the Mediterranean

There is no magic solution that will stop this flow of migrants, but there are policy interventions that can reduce irregular migration


Monday’s tragic drowning of at least 400 migrants is the latest manifestation of a situation that has persisted for at least 15 years. While there been less media coverage, there have been very few weeks since 2000 when migrants have not lost their lives trying to enter Europe. Yet there has been little coordinated and sustained inter-governmental action to minimise this flow. Until this takes place, small and large maritime catastrophes will continue.

Migrants from the Middle East, the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa have been using people smugglers to transport them across the Mediterranean since the late 1990s. Their countries of origin and the routes that they have used have changed over the years. Ten years ago, Spain was a popular destination, with over-crowded boats setting off from countries such as Senegal and Morocco, or migrants attempting to scale the fences into Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s North African enclaves.

Today migration flows have moved east, with more boats leaving Turkey, Egypt and Libya and making for Greece and Italy. But the factors that drive people to entrust their lives to people smugglers remain the same: persecution and threats to life, worklessness, and the belief that Europe offers a route out of poverty. The boat people of 2015 include many Syrians and Iraqis, but also Palestinians, Eritreans and Somalis, as well as jobless young people from countries such as Nigeria.

There is no magic solution that will stop this flow of migrants. In particular, dealing with people smuggling from Libya is challenging, given the break-down of law and order in that country. But there are policy interventions that can reduce irregular migration. These involve dealing with the causes of this migration, speedy asylum procedures and ensuring that maritime search and rescue is properly coordinated and resourced.

In response to irregular migration to Spain, its government looked at ways it could tackle some of the ‘push’ factors causing people to leave their homes. Through bilateral migration agreements, Spain offers legal migration routes for nationals of some countries who might otherwise become irregular migrants. It has been recruiting seasonal agricultural workers from Morocco through a programme allowing female married women with children to work legally for short periods of time in Spain.

This scheme was based on evidence that women with children were more likely to return to their country of origin than those who were male or childless – the Morocco programme has a 95 per cent return rate.

Spain is a member of FRONTEX, the EU’s external border force and the Spanish Navy provides vessels for FRONTEX operations. It also undertakes joint patrols with Senegalese forces, one of the outcomes of a formal agreement with Senegal on irregular migration. Additionally, in 2006 the EU provided 67 million Euros of funding to the Moroccan government to help it improve border security.

In contrast, bilateral migration agreements between Italy and Egypt and Tunisia have not focused on dealing with the root causes of irregular migration, and maritime search and rescue much less coordinated. In response to a previous tragedy, where 500 migrants drowned off Lampedusa in 2013, the Italian government, with EU support, organised operation Mare Nostrum to rescue migrants at sea. But Mare Nostrum was suspended last October and replaced with a much smaller maritime patrol organisation coordinated by FRONTEX. One of our own parliamentarians, Lady Anerlay, outlined the reasons for this decision:

“We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. “

As the summer progresses, many more migrants will set off in boats on the journey to Europe and many more people will lose their lives. It is high time for coordinated action. While there are no easy solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, there are other situations that are more amenable to peace-building, for example, Eritrea and Palestine. There is much more that western diplomacy could do to ease the ‘push factors’ from the Palestinian territories, for example.

Asylum and humanitarian evacuation procedures for those fleeing conflicts on the edges of Europe need to be improved – it is hardly surprising that Syrians are forced to use people smugglers, when most European countries refused to accept programme refugees. (The UK has accepted 143 Syrian programme refugees. Some 11.5 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict).

Fair trade and aid agreements need to tackle the worklessness that also drives young people to Europe. There is a need for more legal migration routes – Spain’s recruitment of seasonal agricultural workers from Morocco is an example of a programme that works. And FRONTEX needs proper resourcing. Perhaps, the loss of so many lives may provide a wake-up call to the governments of Europe.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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