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More than 1,800 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea this year, 800 of whom died in one incident when a boat capsized on April 19th. These deaths make 2015 the deadliest year on record for migrants and refugees in the region. The avoidable loss of life is all the more devastating in light of its predictability. The ongoing violence and instability in Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere indicated that people would continue to leave these areas and attempt to reach Europe. The lack of legal avenues into Europe for migrants and refugees alongside the EU’s emphasis on border control ensured that they would be obliged to resort to the services of smugglers and to dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean. Finally, the reduction in resources committed by EU member states to search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean since October 2014 guaranteed that many more of those embarking on the journey would not arrive on the Sea’s northern shores.
The avoidable deaths of so many people bring into sharp relief the question of how much a human life is worth and when we bestow worth onto particular human beings. The hypocrisy during this last month has been clear: as with previous, avoidable tragedies at sea , while the dead are commemorated, the few lucky enough to survive are branded as ‘illegal’, put into detention, and threatened with deportation. The hypocrisy has reached new heights as EU policymakers are now exploiting migrant and refugee vulnerability and invoking the slave trade in order to justify military action against them.
The European Union’s Response
Following the response of EU politicians, you would be forgiven for thinking that people cross the Mediterranean solely because of their access to smugglers’ boats. Politicians have been quick to call the latest deaths a tragedy, and quicker still to lay blame at the feet of smugglers. Although the President of the European Council declared that the EU’s ‘overriding priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea’ and, at an emergency summit in April, EU member states pledged to triple the resources available to Frontex operations in the Mediterranean, the overwhelming emphasis is still on enforcement and deterrence. If there was any doubt, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri drove the message home on the eve of the EU summit maintaining that saving lives in the Mediterranean was not a priority for the agency.
Last week, the EU announced it would launch a military operation – which could include naval, air, and ground forces – against smugglers in Libya in order to seize and destroy the vessels used by migrants and refugees to travel across the Mediterranean. The EU is seeking support for the operation from the United Nations, despite protestations from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Libya’s ambassador to the UN who both oppose the plan. A vote is expected in the next few weeks. If the EU receives support from the Security Council, the operation will extend into Libya’s airspace and territorial waters, and possibly onto Libyan territory as well. Without UN approval, EU heads of state have claimed they will nevertheless press ahead with a military operation outside of Libya’s airspace and territorial waters. These military plans have overshadowed more progressive proposals to create more legal channels into Europe for migrants and refugees, increase the number of refugees resettled from conflict areas like Syria, and improve the EU’s asylum system.
Moreover, the EU’s proposed military intervention has two fatal flaws: it is unlikely to significantly effect smuggling in the region, and it will increase the violence and precarity that migrants and refugees face. Smuggler organizations in the region are diffuse networks without a clear chain of command and without identifiable assets. Fishing vessels may be bought or stolen for the Mediterranean voyage; boats are sometimes inflated on the beach just prior to departure. Thus, these vessels are only identifiable as smuggling vessels once migrants and refugees are on board. Military attacks that target these boats will target some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. Indeed, the EU has acknowledged that the operation will result in ‘collateral damage’: it will kill men, women, and children who are fleeing violence and instability, who are victims of torture, and who are in need of international protection.
Even if the military operation is successful, it will trap migrants and refugees in Libya where they face widespread torture, rape, abduction, and other violence, according to a recent report by Amnesty International. The military operation will also not address the conflicts that have, for example, caused the number of Syrians crossing the Central Mediterranean to increase from 100 in 2012 to 10,000 in 2013 and 42,000 in 2014. Although the EU, the US, and other western states have demonstrated a willingness to intervene militarily and politically in Libya, Syria, and other parts of the region, a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of these interventions is woefully lacking. Thus, while Turkey, Lebanon, Jordon, and other neighboring countries host more than three million Syrian refugees, the number of Syrians resettled by Western countries is miniscule compared to the scale of the crisis. For example, the US had resettled less than 1,000 people, while Canada has resettled just over 1,300 Syrian refugees. The EU has resettled only 36,300 Syrians, of which 30,000 have been resettled by Germany. The UK has resettled only 143 Syrian refugees.
EU rhetoric also obscures the agency of migrants and refugees and reduces them to flotsam and jetsam pushed and pulled by powerful smuggling networks. It overlooks the fact that despite enormous resources spent on building ‘Fortress Europe’, borders remain porous and migration routes adapt in the face of new control measures. Significantly, the emphasis on combatting smugglers also obscures the ways in which EU border controls have contributed to the business of smuggling. With no legal routes around the walls and barriers that surround Europe, migrants and refugees trapped in Libya are left with few options but to engage a smuggler. The surest way to undermine this booming business of smuggling would be to open legal channels into Europe.
In George Orwell’s 1984, doublethink, a principle of the political party, Ingsoc, is defined as the act of ‘holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’. The EU proposal to use military force in order to stop refugees in their attempts to find a safe haven and international protection in Europe evokes the Party slogan in 1984: ‘War is Peace, Slavery is Freedom, and Ignorance is Strength’. Invading a country and using military force against people fleeing violence is a disproportionate response that will only add to the number of migrant and refugee deaths. The humanitarian crisis on the EU’s borders has been caused in part by military aggression in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. To respond with further military force would be foolhardy.
The Mediterranean Sea has become the deadliest part of the world for migrants: in 2014, the 3,166 people who lost their lives between the Sea’s northern and southern shores constituted over 70% of migrant deaths worldwide according to the International Organization for Migration. These deaths occurred despite the extensive search and rescue activities of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation that rescued more than 150,000 people between October 2013 and October 2014. Given the still limited resources to rescue people at sea as well as the lack of legal channels into Europe for the vast majority of Syrian, Somalis, Palestinians and others, the recent deaths at sea and the response by EU politicians raise the question of what kind of Europe we want to create and live in: one that is a leader in the world because it lives up to its principles of inclusion, freedom of movement, refugee protection and other human rights, or one that builds walls and embarks on military operations to exclude, allows people to die en masse at its borders, and leads the world only in migrant deaths?
Cetta Mainwaring is an Assistant Professor in Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada. She completed her doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2012. Her research interests include migration and migration governance, border studies, and European studies.