They are Europe’s shame and its greatest political challenge. Throughout the first half of 2015, wave after wave of leaking old fishing boats and tattered rubber dinghies, weighed down in the water with migrants packed aboard like slaves on a slave ship, have set off from the coast of Libya into the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean. The vast majority head for Italian shores – often the small island of Lampedusa – in the hope of claiming asylum in Europe. This year almost 30,000 immigrants have reached Italy. But tragically at least 1,800 have died after their boats sank, or after days adrift without food, water or shelter. More people have drowned in the Mediterranean than at any other time since battleships were sunk in its waters during World War II.
Migrants are fleeing repression, war and chaos, or seeking a better life than the poverty and hardship of their homelands. They come from all over Africa and beyond – thousands of Syrian refugees represent the largest group – as well as young men escaping from Eritrea, where indefinite military service, repression and poverty have forced many to try to escape and risk the dangerous sea journey to Europe.
This mass migration is largely organised by criminal gangs of people smugglers, who take advantage of the turmoil and lack of authority in Libya to charge huge sums – up to $20,000 – for a place on a boat. The traffickers know full well that most of the ships are not seaworthy, but are counting on Italian and European ships patrolling the waters south of Italy to rescue the migrants. But many drown – and the smuggling gangs do not care.
This grisly trade has been going on for over a year. But the numbers are steadily rising. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that last year more than 26,000 reached the shores of Italy or Lampedusa. More have set sail this year, and an estimated 50,000 have already arrived. But the casualties are also rising fast, especially after the Italian navy and EU decided to cut back the rescue patrols in an attempt to discourage more people from attempting the dangerous crossing. The Italian operation, Mare Nostrum, had taken more than 140,000 people aboard its ships between October 2013 and 2014. But after Italy complained that it could not afford the €9 million a month to rescue the boat people, its patrols were replaced with a scaled-down operation, called Triton, run by the EU’s border agency Frontex. This limited patrols to only 30 miles from the Italian coastline. As a result, boats of migrants that have sunk or broken down mid-ocean have led to terrible tragedies. In one incident on 18 April, about 800 people are thought to have perished when their boat sank, many of them trapped below decks and unable to escape.
That incident caused a massive outcry across Europe, as the tragic scenes of people floundering in the water were captured on television. There have been reports that the criminal gangs have forced people aboard the ships at gunpoint, and that during the crossings a number of people have been thrown overboard. EU governments decided the attempt to discourage migrants by limiting naval patrols had failed. A new policy was clearly needed.
But the dilemma for Europe is acute. Italy has complained that it should not bear the burden of housing and caring for the refugees, and it says that it is now overwhelmed with migrants, causing growing social problems with the Italian population. Some provinces in northern Italy have now refused to accept any more refugees. Italy wants the rest of Europe to share the cost and to accept quotas of migrants. Greece is also struggling to cope, as many of the boats make for Kos and other Greek islands. And with its economy in deep trouble, Greece has little money to care for the new arrivals.
But imposing migrant quotas on other EU members is hugely unpopular. Britain has flatly opposed the idea, as the government knows that immigration is one of the most sensitive issues in domestic politics, and has promised to cut back immigrant numbers. Most of the refugees want to settle in northern Europe, especially Germany and Sweden, which offer higher social security benefits and where most of the new migrants have headed.
The European Commission briefly suggested imposing mandatory quotas on all EU members, but this proposal was immediately vetoed by most member states. A summit meeting to decide what to do led to a new 10-point plan. First, the EU decided to increase the sea patrols, and several countries, including Britain, have sent ships to the region to intercept the boats and rescue the migrants. But these ships take the refugees to the nearest land, which is almost always Italy, rather than to their home countries. Secondly, the Europeans said they had to destroy the trafficking gangs, and even suggested destroying the ships and bombing the smugglers’ bases in Libya. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General raised objections, saying such an idea was “not appropriate.”
Without specific authorisation by the UN, many countries are reluctant to be drawn into a new war against Libya. And destroying the ships would either leave Libya with no fishing vessels or risks killing many civilians. In any case, the smugglers would then use rubber dinghies for the crossing, which are even more unsafe than fishing boats.
The scale of the migration is beyond anything Europe has seen before. In one 24-hour period recently some 4,200 migrants and refugees were rescued in 22 different operations carried out by European naval vessels and merchant ships. The rescue was coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard from its national rescue centre in Rome, and migrants were plucked from nine boats and 13 large rubber dinghies. Seventeen bodies were found on one of the dinghies: migrants who had died of exhaustion, thirst, exposure or a mixture of all three. Most of the migrants are young men, many of them from Africa. But many women and even babies have attempted the crossing, and are at the greatest risk of drowning.
Ideally, Europe would like the Libyan authorities to take action against the smugglers. But the many tribal factions are now fighting each other, there is no civil or police authority and in some areas groups associated with Islamic State have now imposed their rule. They have no interest in negotiating an agreement with the Europeans.
After reports that Christians had been thrown overboard by some traffickers, the Pope has appealed to the conscience of Europe’s leaders to save “our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.” But European politicians are deeply fearful of any measures that would simply encourage more migrants to risk the crossing. There is also a growing fear that the migrants will pose a security threat, with reports – not yet proven – that Islamic State and other extremist groups are attempting to smuggle terrorists into Europe aboard the migrant ships.
The alternative is clear: to stabilise conditions in the migrants’ home countries, raise standards of living, and reverse the chaos and disorder in the Middle East and Africa. But that will take years to show any effect and is immensely costly.
It is not only Europe that is facing a dilemma. A similar wave of boat people has been causing similar problems in South-East Asia. Most of the migrants are Bangladeshis or Rohingya people – Muslims from northern Burma who are facing increasing persecution and are seeking to resettle in Thailand, Malaysia or any of the richer nations to the south. They have also been exploited and lured into ships by people traffickers who have been using them as cheap labour in other countries, often keeping them as virtual prisoners in jungle camps when they arrive.
The conditions for these refugees are as bad, if not worse, than it is for those crossing the Mediterranean. Many have died of thirst and starvation on the trip. Burma’s neighbours have taken a hard line, refusing to allow them to land or providing them with food and water and sending their boats back out to sea. But their governments have also faced an outcry by such harsh treatment and are having to rethink their policies.
Migration is one of the greatest issues now facing richer nations – in both Europe and Asia. The solution will be long, difficult and costly. And until some way is found of stopping the flow, the drownings, deaths and despair of the victims are likely to continue for many months to come.