Migration through the Mediterranean : which European responses ?
Access to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea : a look back at ten years of European policies
Throughout the summer of 2018, the Mediterranean played centre stage to a continuing crisis at sea, highlighting the impasse facing EU member states as they confront the lives in peril off the continent’s southern shores. With a growing body count, the criminalisation of search-and-rescue NGOs and the increasing refusal of European states to allow humanitarian ships into their docks, we need now more than ever to look back at the policies governing access to the European continent.
A perilous route to Europe, getting worse
The route across the Mediterranean has rarely been out of the spotlight in Europe over the past ten years. A bone of contention between European leaders, the Mediterranean has been the theatre for a huge number of shipwrecks and deaths for years. This perilous route is littered with tragedy; take Lampedusa in 2013, where dozens of bodies were fished out of the water after a migrant ship went down. Today, there are three main maritime routes to Europe from Africa and the Middle East: the Eastern Mediterranean route links Turkey to Greece, the Central Mediterranean route connects Tunisia and Libya with Italy and Malta, and the Western Mediterranean route runs from Morocco to Spain.
According to the figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), some 22,000 people have reportedly lost their lives in an effort to reach Europe between 2000 and 2015. Across the Mediterranean, there were 3,700 deaths in 2016 and 2,800 in 2017. Some of these wrecks, such as the tragedy at Lampedusa, struck a chord among the European public at large and shone a light on the terrible danger at sea. And while the number of people attempting the crossing has since fallen, the death toll remains high: between January and July 2018, the HCR reported that “one in eighteen people” trying to cross the Mediterranean died or was lost at sea, while the figure was only “one in forty-two” over the same period the year before.
Despite their reticence, European States are bound by international laws and rules governing rescue at sea. Several maritime law treaties, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 1974 and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in 1979, require signatory states to provide assistance to any person in distress at sea without discrimination, and oblige them to cooperate so that those rescued can be quickly taken ashore in a safe place. What’s more, the principle of non-refoulement must be abided by: it is forbidden to send any person back to a place where they are at risk of mistreatment. Lastly, depending on the search and rescue area, the relevant authorities are responsible for setting up a preventive system to allow them to communicate, detect and rescue people at sea.
Enhanced controls and surveillance at Europe’s external borders
According to the IOM, the increasing number of deaths in the Mediterranean is intrinsically linked with the increasing difficulty migrants have reaching the European continent. Legal migration has become more difficult since the early 2000’s, so people are turning to illicit means to make the journey.
To combat this over the past years, the EU has worked to strengthen its access policies at its external borders. This effort led to the creation of the Frontex agency in 2004, which works to ensure coordination and cooperation between member states in terms of the Union’s outer edges. In particular, the “Rabit” system was launched in 2007 in order to set up rapid-response teams at the borders and help any member states facing a “massive influx” of illegal immigrants. In 2013, the EUROSUR “European border monitoring system” was created in order to exchange information. This was designed to reinforce Europe’s external border management systems.
In light of the increasing number of people trying to get to Europe from the sea, Frontex has progressively extended its remit to cover search and rescue operations. From 2006, this European agency launched a number of operations such as Agios and Gate and Africa in Spain, where they supported national authorities with search and rescue at sea. At the same time, Frontex has supported other European countries such as Italy and Greece with Operation Poseidon. In 2015, Operation Triton was launched in the Central Mediterranean as a successor to the Italian Mare Nostrum, which ran from 2013 to November 2014 and saved 166,000 people. With fewer resources and a smaller area of operation than Mare Nostrum, Frontex has expanded the geographic scope of Operation Triton in order to conduct the search and rescue operations they’ve been tasked with since 2016. What’s more, the European Union has implemented a military operation, EUNAVFOR MED, to dismantle the people trafficking networks in the Southern Mediterranean.
In a bid to enhance security at the Union’s external borders, in 2016 Frontex became the “European Border and Coast Guard Agency” with considerably reinforced missions and capacities (a greater role in returning migrants, preventing cross-border criminality, their own human and material resources, etc.). As part of this new framework, February 2018 saw the launch of Operation Thémis to replace Triton, expanding it to include action against criminal activities.
Are NGOs making up for the failure of European states to provide search-and-rescue at sea?
According to Amnesty International, NGOs have made a crucial contribution to the search and rescue effort, filling the gap left by European governments. The private Maltese organisation, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, was the first such organisation to deploy a humanitarian ship in the Mediterranean in August and September 2014, while in 2015, cooperation between several NGOs and various national organisations has saved the life of more than 150,000 people. In 2016, a growing number of NGOs have specialised in search and rescue at sea, such as SOS Méditerranée, Jugend Retter, Life Boat, Proactiva Open Arms, and more. According to the Italian Coast Guards, they accounted for 40% of the rescues in the Mediterranean between 2017 and June 2018.
At the same time, however, some have been accused of helping the people-traffickers in their work. Italy, Greece and Malta launched administrative and penal investigations against various organisations, in order to determine whether the activities of these NGOs constitute humanitarian aid or migrant trafficking. Most of these procedures did, however, lead to an acquittal or to the investigations being dropped for lack of evidence. In 2017, Italy submitted a Code of Conduct for NGOs, forbidding them from entering Libyan territorial waters and communicating with the traffickers.
To combat the arrival of large numbers of migrants, the States at Europe’s southern borders (predominantly Italy and Malta) have implemented a new policy: sequestering NGO’s rescue boats in ports and preventing them from either unloading people they rescued or set off again. In March 2018, this led to the seizure of the boat belonging to the NGO Proactiva Open Arms in a Sicilian port; they were then forbidden from setting off again, facing accusations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. In the summer of 2018, an even more worrying series of events unfolded, with the Italian and Maltese authorities refusing to allow NGOs boats with rescued people from docking in their ports. Last June, the humanitarian ship used by the NGO SOS Méditerranée, the Aquarius, was forced to wait for several days at sea with more than 600 people on board before Spain allowed them to disembark in the port of Valencia.
After several months of confrontation, Aquarius found itself confined to the Marseille docks following the loss of its flag, leading SOS Méditerranée to accuse the Italian government of pressuring Gibraltar and Panama into refusing to register the ship under their flags. This situation raises a number of questions about the efficacy and effectiveness of the search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, especially considering that coordination for rescue operations is now left to the Libyan coast guards. At the beginning of October 2018, a new humanitarian ship, chartered by several organisations including the German NGO Sea Watch, was sent to the Libyan coast to support the sailboat sent by the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms.
And while the European Union continues to treat the Mediterranean question as a priority, and while proposals for a new mechanism to receive people rescued at sea have been floated, Europe remains deeply divided over the right strategy to adopt – both on their own territory and, to a lesser extent, towards other countries.