By: Jack Shenker
These days, it takes a blockbuster tragedy for migrant boats to reach the front pages – the quiet, regular additions to the Mediterranean’s death toll encountered on an almost-weekly basis by rescuers, human rights activists and migrant communities themselves are simply far too humdrum to make the mainstream news.
“The reaction of a lot of us this morning was just ‘yet again, yet again’ … except this time it’s even worse,” Judith Sunderland, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who specialises in migration, told the Guardian. “What’s chilling is to think that this could have been prevented.”
In the past two decades, almost 20,000 people are recorded as having lost their lives in an effort to reach Europe‘s southern borders from Africa and the Middle East. In 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, more than 1,500 were killed in a single year. Thursday’s horrific scenes are only the latest in a long line of similar, albeit less dramatic, boat disasters – a litany of largely avoidable loss which inspired Pope Francis, on a visit to Lampedusa earlier this year, to inveigh against the rich world’s “globalisation of indifference”.
Activists and policymakers agree that a large portion of the blame for migrant deaths must lie with the unscrupulous criminal gangs who demand large payments for arranging people trafficking and often use dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels for the job. But on the question of how Europe should approach this problem, there is considerable discord, dividing those who believe far more needs to be done to prioritise the saving of lives, from those who fear any shift in emphasis away from border enforcement will only encourage people trafficking.
“If traffickers think they can smuggle people in with impunity, that’s an incentive for smuggling to increase,” said Christopher Chope, a Conservative MP and rapporteur for the Council of Europe’s committee on migration. But critics claim that the enforcement posture adopted by both European nations and the continent’s supranational agencies such as the border control force Frontex only serve to deny migrants vital humanitarian assistance and increase the risk of boat deaths.
“What we really don’t see is a presumption of saving lives; what we get instead is every effort to shut down borders,” said Sunderland, who pointed out that security crackdowns on land crossings such as the Greece-Turkey border only displaced migrant flows and often forced more boats into the sea. “The only hope is that this latest tragedy fundamentally shocks the conscience of Europeans and European decision-makers into adopting a real life-saving approach to migrants in the Mediterranean.”
But more often than not attempts to forge a co-ordinated, effective European response to irregular migration by boat have stumbled. Following the Guardian’s exposé of the “left-to-die” boat in 2011, in which61 migrants were left to perish slowly at sea despite distress calls being sounded and their vessel’s position being made known to European authorities and Nato ships, an in-depth inquiry by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly found that a “catalogue of failures” had caused the deaths and recommended a fundamental overhaul of European policy on migration; at the same time the UN declared that all migrant vessels in the Mediterranean should be considered by default as in distress, and thus in need of rescue.
Yet although thousands of migrants have been rescued by the coastguards of southern European countries such as Italy and Malta, there still remains an absence of political will when it comes to ensuring that vulnerable migrants don’t fall through the cracks of an intricate set of border and rescue policies and overlapping regions of legal jurisdiction. In August the Italian authorities ordered two commercial ships to rescue a migrant boat in the sea and then demanded the ship’s captains transport the migrants back to Libya, a move that experts believe could discourage commercial captains from attempting rescues at all and may be in breach of international law.
At the end of this year, Eurosur – a new Mediterranean surveillance and data-sharing system developed by the EU which, among other things, would use satellite imagery and drones to monitor the high seas and the north African coast – is due to go live. European policymakers claim the technology will make a serious contribution to saving migrant lives on the sea, but sceptics say that the project is still primarily focused on preventing migrants reaching Europe at all, and legislation needs to be redrafted to put humanitarian concerns at the forefront of Eurosur’s operations.
In the meantime, much more could be done to ensure that both national coastguards and commercial vessels have both the capability and incentives to be proactive when it comes to saving the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“A terrible human tragedy is taking place at the gates of Europe. And not for the first time,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, in response to Thursday’s grim death toll. “We must end this now. I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind, and I make a fervent appeal for specific, urgent action by member states to end this shame.”
Without a drastic increase in political will across the European continent, his wish is unlikely to be realised.