Wednesday, April 22, 2015

EC's Response to the Migrant Crisis in the Mediterranean Is Lacking

As reported by many news organizations, there is a migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. According to the latest figures, 1754 persons have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since the beginning of the year, including 800 on April 19 alone, when a boat from Libya sank on its way to Italy.  The International Organization for Migration has said that these figures represent many times the number of deaths experienced during the same period last year (96 deaths in the first four months of 2014 as compared to over 1500 deaths so far in 2015).  Most of the migrants are fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East.

Yesterday, the European Commission (EC) offered a 10-point plan in response to the migrant crisis, including more resources for Frontex, the border agency in charge of the EU's Mediterranean rescue service, Triton. Certainly, more resources are needed to rescue those at sea. However, the 10-point plan is disappointing in that it is largely focused on responses to the crisis that do not address its underlying causes or offer long-term solutions.  Only three of the ideas suggested deal with the possible resettlement of persons in safe countries.  And of those ideas, two seem to be temporary and voluntary emergency-type programs ("emergency relocation mechanism" and "voluntary pilot project on resettlement"), not long-term, sustainable solutions. Three of the ten ideas focus solely on information-gathering - both about the smugglers and their operations, as well as about the victims.  Only one point mentions "engagement" with countries in Africa and none suggest helping to resolve the conflict in Libya, where many of these vessels originate.

In addition, some of these responses raise difficult legal issues, such as the suggestion to capture and destroy vessels used by human smugglers. When and how such an operation would be carried out is not clear. Would the EU forces only destroy a vessel after capturing it and discovering evidence of criminal activity, like human smuggling, being carried on aboard the vessel? Or would they attack a vessel on suspicion of criminal activity (perhaps leading to mistakes and more loss of life)? Will they enter the sovereign territory of other nations to capture and destroy the vessels, possibly provoking additional conflict? In its 10-point plan, the EC pointed to successes by the Atlanta Operation with respect to Somali pirates, but safely capturing vessels overloaded with hundreds of migrants is likely quite different than capturing vessels with pirates aboard. 

Wealthier countries in the EU and around the world must step up and create better long-term solutions to the refugee crises in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.  They must provide more assistance to countries that are experiencing poverty, conflict, and natural disasters. Without addressing the underlying factors that create migrant crises, these migrant flows will not cease. The international community should consider broadening the definition of who qualifies as a refugee and increase the numbers of refugees and other displaced persons they are willing to resettle within their borders.


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