After Lampedusa

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Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni
First-Year MA Candidate at SAIS Europe

The tragic October 3rd shipwreck near the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3rd, which claimed the lives of more than 300 African migrants, truly shook the European media and provoked a unique volume of public discussion about the deficiencies of European migration policy. Unfortunately, the shipwreck itself was not a unique event, but rather one among dozens of similar catastrophes. Overall, 15,551 migrants are said to have died trying to cross Europe’s borders between 1998 and April 2011, most of them while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea on decrepit boats (M. Carr, Fortress Europe, p. 4). This kind of human suffering makes some introspection on the part of European policy-makers (and of those who elect them) imperative: how do European migration policies affect such disasters at sea, and how can we avert them in the future?

First, we should remind ourselves of what European policy-makers must not do, for moral and legal reasons, when designing migration policy. They must not shirk their responsibilities to save people who are in danger at sea and to offer protection to migrants who are entitled to it. They must not forcibly return migrants to territories where they would face inhuman circumstances. In short, they must not violate the human rights of migrants.

Unfortunately, European policy-makers have a history of doing exactly those things in implementing what journalist Matthew Carr calls “the most sustained and extensive border enforcement programme in history” (Fortress Europe p. 3). There are too many reports accusing European ships and national authorities of failing to rescue migrants at sea. In May 2011 Spiegel reported that a ship, which eventually sank at the Libyan coast and resulted in 63 casualties, had been spotted by Italian and Maltese border officials and was near three different European ships. Yet no European state was willing to assume the responsibility of saving the migrants. The migrants were left to float across the Mediterranean for two whole weeks while European border officials bickered about their respective duties towards the migrants before disaster happened.

Furthermore, too many human rights abuses take place at Europe’s exclusive borders, as the Europeans turn a blind eye to the inhumane practices of bordering states that are essentially encouraged to do the “dirty work” of preventing migration to Europe. The shocking events at the border of the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco in autumn 2005, when the Moroccan police attacked groups of migrants trying to break into the European Union with live ammunition are just one example. The police subsequently abandoned the survivors at the edge of the Sahara desert with no food or drink. As Carr writes, “no one has ever been held responsible for the deaths that took place that year, though both Spain and Morocco claim to have carried out their own internal investigations, each of which blamed their counterparts on the other side of the border.” (Fortress Europe p. 55).

Unfortunately, the Lampedusa events are unlikely to bring about a substantial change in such policies. On the contrary, the Europeans’ immediate response to the tragedy was to precipitate the onset of the activities of EUROSUR, the EU’s new border surveillance system. Ostensibly the system aims to allow European authorities to spot and rescue ships with migrants, but in reality it is designed to “reduce the number of illegal immigrants who enter the European Union undetected,” to use the words of the official EUROSUR legislation. This response does nothing to resolve the problem of the southern European states’ unwillingness to accept migrants. Instead, the program will probably engender further rights abuses, as more ships will be sent back earlier and with greater secrecy. At a minimum, we should encourage extensive coverage of the abuses that take place at Europe’s borders. Then at least there would be transparency. Then at least European citizens would know what their elected governments do and tolerate at the edge of our continent of “freedom, security and justice”.

As Italian protesters suggested in a poster to European Commission leaders who visited Lampedusa on October 9, “if you don’t want any more deaths in the sea, introduce a ferry from Libya to Rome”. In order to avert shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, policy-makers must introduce more legal ways for migrants to travel to Europe. For the case of forced migrants—who are fleeing persecution, war or human rights violations, and who are entitled to protection by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention—the international community must design a comprehensive strategy to coordinate responses to refugee crises, allocating the burden of protection in a way that is compatible with the capacity of destination states. Within the European Union, such a strategy should involve a modification of the Dublin Treaty, which in its current form places the greatest burden of processing asylum applications on Europe’s borderlands.

In the case of voluntary migrants, including those who migrate for economic reasons, European states must weigh the costs and benefits of migration in a rational way instead of evoking the xenophobic imagery that dominates public discourse on migration today. Following such rational analysis, which would take into account the benefits of welcoming a young labor force in the context of our ageing European populations, European states would provide more opportunities for migrants to travel legally to Europe. Ultimately, the criminalization of migration not only fails to secure migrant welfare, but it also legitimizes the most racist and nationalist political movements in European societies in ways that threaten the essence of the European project itself.

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