/ 23 April 2015

Divided Europe is all at sea over desperate migrants

A refugee crawls to sanctuary after his makeshift boat arrived at the Gran Tarajal beach in Spain's Canary Island of Fuerteventura.
A refugee crawls to sanctuary after his makeshift boat arrived at the Gran Tarajal beach in Spain's Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

What can be done? The grim death toll in the Mediterranean has provoked a chorus of calls for action to prevent 2015 becoming the deadliest year for migrants trying to get to Europe.

But European Union policymakers face a tangled knot of “push factors” – war, economic crisis, political repression and environmental degradation. They also need to deal with the “pull factors” – the muddle of disparate EU policy approaches that encourage migrants to take their chances. What could help?

Reinstate search-and-rescue
The Italian search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, saved more than 100 000 people in 12 months. Its replacement by a lesser EU force, Triton, prompted warnings of a jump in the number of deaths.

The predictions have come true. Most migrants are nonswimmers. The southern Mediterranean is generally calm in the first part of summer, but can become stormy in late summer and the autumn.

Reinstating a proper, EU-wide search-and-rescue force would save lives and signal that Europe is not prepared to sacrifice its humanity for narrow gains in controlling immigration. – Mark Rice-Oxley, foreign news editor

Standardise asylum rules
This is a much tougher ask. Illegal migration is not a level playing field in Europe. Southern EU states bear the brunt of the influx and feel they have had to shoulder the burden of dealing with a problem that should have a common European response.

There have been many proposals over the past decade from Brussels for more common and co-ordinated policies, ranging from “blue card” schemes modelled on the United States’s green card system to making it easier for migrants to enter the EU legally.

But an EU-wide scheme is toxic for many governments because it would entail a system of quotas and distributing refugees and people seeking asylum more equitably between EU member states – and immigration is one of the most incendiary topics in the national politics of many countries.

One draft paper from the centre-right bloc in Europe suggests introducing quotas for distributing migrants throughout the 28 countries according to a country’s size and its wealth, or depending on whether a certain “threshold” of refugees coming to a country has been exceeded.

Next month the European Commission will unveil a European migration blueprint, tabling similar proposals.

Governments may balk at this – unless more headlines of “Europe’s shame” convinces them that managed immigration is the lesser of two evils. – Ian Traynor, Europe editor

Deal with Libya
We are not going to be able to tackle migration until there is a functional Libyan government. EU member states have no contact with the Libyan authorities in charge of coastguard operations or internal security because the administration in Tripoli is not recognised internationally as legitimate.

The result is that neither the EU nor individual European governments are allowed to co-operate or liaise with the bodies that are notionally dealing with the influx of migrants travelling through Libya.

In the past, EU governments worked actively with local authorities in Misrata, Zawiya and Zuwara and other areas on or near the coast.

The EU and US support United Nations-led efforts to broker a ceasefire and create a broad national unity government.

“We have got to sort out the politics,” said one EU official. “We are not going to be able to tackle drugs or migration or weapons smuggling until there is a Libyan government that we can at least work with. It is taking a long time.” – Ian Black, Middle East editor

Improve conditions
Even if its war ended tomorrow, Libya would still be a difficult place to live as a refugee.

“They’re treated as illegal migrants,” says Samer Haddadin, the head of the UN refugee agency’s mission in the country.

Affording refugees the legal right to asylum that they are due under international law would give them an option other than the sea.

The situation could also be improved in neighbouring Egypt, another launching pad for those trying to reach Europe by sea. The UN High Commission for Refugees recently cut subsidies to many Syrian families, making it harder to survive in a country where employment is scarce.

The national conversation is also not kind to Syrians. Before the summer of 2013, very few Syrian refugees in Cairo even thought about leaving by boat. They were welcomed by the government of the time and were given easy access to state facilities.

But, after the Egyptian administration changed in July 2013, the climate soured, and Syrians were wrongly perceived to have sided with the ousted government. Xenophobia spiked and access to facilities was cancelled. An exodus by sea has since followed. – Patrick Kingsley, Egypt correspondent

Tackle the smugglers
Wiping out the smuggling networks is an often-cited solution, but it won’t be the silver bullet that European politicians are hoping for.

Smuggling doesn’t just benefit a few individuals along the Libyan coast. It propels the economy of whole communities along the migrant trail through Libya and countries such as Sudan and Mali to the south.

In Zuwara, the port that lies 100km from where hundreds of migrants went missing at the weekend, locals say it is the only source of income.

“We know it is cruel,” says a fuel smuggler who admits to ignoring the people trafficking. “But we are benefiting from it financially and there is no other work.”

Locals make money from selling the boats, fitting them, driving the migrants to the shore, and for putting them up in empty properties before their voyage. Even some coastguards get a small cut.

Coastguards are under the jurisdiction of rival governments and have just three vessels to patrol the vast shoreline from which most migrant boats to Italy leave.

Sustainable solutions involve uniting and strengthening law enforcement agencies, and creating real employment alternatives in smuggler towns. But, in the short term, the available tactics are more modest.

One fisherman recommends that Italian coastguards ensure that intercepted migrant ships are destroyed once their passengers are rescued: in Libyan docks this week, visitors can easily find “recycled” boats that have been salvaged by opportunistic smugglers.

A ban on importing engines might also help – they’re becoming more scarce, according to a smuggler in Tripoli. Greater oversight of the ports is also essential: smugglers are able to leave harbour in boats that have had their names scrubbed out, a practice that is illegal and wouldn’t be possible if coastguards were doing their jobs.

In Zuwara, where residents are overwhelmingly members of the Amazigh ethnic group, smugglers say they would be prepared to give up smuggling if their historically marginalised culture and society were recognised by the Libyan state.

“We can dramatically reduce the amount of smuggling if you put the Amazigh on the map, and if you invest in Zuwara economically and provide more jobs,” says Amdiaz Aminzo, a former smuggler who did not want to use his real name. “We will continue doing what we’re doing and I’ll go back to smuggling unless something changes.” – Patrick Kingsley

Speed up processing times
Applications for legal resettlement can take 18 months to complete. Even then, only a small minority of applications are successful: European countries are accepting so few migrants because of national politics.

As a result, legal resettlement seems unattainable to most refugees, forcing them to seek alternate means of reaching Europe.

Increasing even slightly the number of refugees allowed to resettle in places such as Britain and speeding up the application process might convince people to put off the boat voyage by another year.

“It’s strange,” says Abu Jana, a Syrian who will brave the Mediterranean later this summer. “If one million people make it to Europe [by boat], they can get asylum. But if 2 000 people apply for asylum to Europe from here [in Egypt], they won’t get it. Maybe they [the Europeans] are encouraging or even working with the smugglers.”

One report by economists from City University London and the Toulouse School of Economics argues that selling visas could price criminal smugglers out of the market and raise money for improving border controls.

The authors, Alice Mesnard and Emmanuelle Auriol, say: “If the aim is to control migration flows and eliminate the smugglers, a better idea is to combine policies of repression with visa sales at prices that push smugglers out of the market.”

But, they add, “of course, not everyone will be able to afford a visa and we believe this will restrict migration flows.” – Patrick Kingsley

More legal routes
Refugee groups are keen to stress that what is needed above all is more legal routes into the EU. In Canada, groups such as mosques, churches or even members of an immigrant community can privately sponsor refugees, bearing some or all of the financial cost of integration.

A pilot sponsorship programme of 500 refugees in Australia began in 2013 and is still under way.

The other major push is for a much wider application of family reunification laws. At the moment refugees can only bring over spouses or children. The Refugee Council in Britain wants to see it made much easier for people to bring over family members such as siblings, parents or cousins.

This would obviate the need for them to smuggle themselves in illegally. – Harriet Grant, journalist covering migration

Deal with repression
The fact that more Syrians and Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 than any other nationality should tell its own story. Ultimately the most sustainable way of decreasing demand for the boats is to curb repression in countries such as Eritrea, and end wars in countries of transit or origin like Libya and Syria.

“Our country is a total dictatorship,” one Eritrean refugee in Libya said. “They can put us in prison for unlimited years. If we go back, we will die.”

Syrians say their situation is just as stark. “Right now Syrians consider themselves dead,” says Jana. “Maybe not physically, but psychologically and socially [a Syrian] is a destroyed human being. He’s reached the point of death.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015