The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

23 April: a shameful day in European history

Sunday, 26 April 2015, 08:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

The European Union's leaders this week not only failed the thousands of would-be migrants intending to seek refuge somewhere in Europe from the horrors of their own countries, but they failed their own citizens and the European ideal of humanitarianism in the process when they gathered in 'shock' over the latest migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean.

By and large, we Europeans are humanitarians, but their leaders' response to this year's 'new' migration crisis was anything but.

By collectively choosing to target the human traffickers in Libya, what they have effectively done is to have fortified Fortress Europe further. They have made Libya the final destination for sub-Saharan Africans seeking some semblance of security in a safe country. Libya is no safe country by any stretch of the imagination and the treatment that migrants suffer there, as has been documented time and time again, make the atrocities being suffered by Libyans seem like a leisurely stroll in the park.

EU leaders have effectively sought to seal the migration phenomenon safely within Africa, save for their meagre pledge to resettle a maximum of 5,000 refugees in Europe. They have spoken of smashing the human trafficking rings carrying people to Europe, but they have offered no alternatives whatsoever to address the humanitarian rights and needs of those pleading for their protection.

Last Thursday, Europe collectively decided to abandon those people, and every European with any humanitarian streak has hung their head in shame.

While the human traffickers to be targeted by the EU are obviously part of the problem, and as such should be included in any holistic solution, their role in this great human tragedy is secondary to the impossibility of refugees safely and legally entering the bloc. As matters stand, human traffickers and the deadly crossing of the Mediterranean are the refugees' only means of reaching Europe to claim asylum.

This month's incidents in the Mediterranean, and the more than 1,700 deaths and almost 40,000 crossings we have seen so far in 2015 are symptoms of an enormous and intensifying tragedy that is being played out on Europe's southern borders. The Mediterranean crossings are not just a migrant phenomenon, they are a refugee phenomenon too - half of those who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 were people seeking refuge from wars and persecution, for whom there has to be some alternative to being left with no option other than to cross the Mediterranean in traffickers' ramshackle, overcrowded boats.

The EU's proposed measures might be effective in curbing trafficking activities from Libya, but they will most definitely lead to the opening up of new and possibly more dangerous routes. Migrants are using smugglers out of pure desperation because they have no other option and barely have any legal means to reach safety.

EU leaders are missing the point if they believe that once smugglers are arrested and boats are destroyed, people will no longer attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Unintended consequences could include a shift to more dangerous alternatives, such as inflatable boats or smaller vessels carrying greater numbers of migrants and refugees. One way or the other, people fleeing conflict and human rights abuses will do whatever it takes to reach safety. Without a real policy on legal and safe alternatives, the measures agreed to in Brussels are bound to fail and may put refugees' and migrants' lives further at risk.

While the tripling of funding for joint maritime operations under the Triton operation are welcome - in that this will mean an operation with similar capacity, resources, and scope similar to Italy's now defunct but massively successful humanitarian Mare Nostrum operation - the operation will not venture into the Libyan search and rescue area, which is where most of the distress calls tend to come from.

Unless that operation is extended to where the tragedies are actually taking place, migrants and refugees will continue to drown. The fact of the matter is that if Triton's mandate can't be changed, it will be no solution irrespective of the resources allocated - it is simply not enough to increase those resources if they remain focused on protecting Europe's borders rather than the people at sea who are dying trying to get there.

The European Council's shallow and shameful response to the migrant crisis is predominantly aimed at preventing migrants and refugees from reaching Europe and creating restrictive border control policies in countries of transit and origin. 

By investing in law enforcement and border management to stop human smuggling and without, at the same time, establishing accessible legal channels for refugees and migrants, the EU is only addressing the symptoms and not the human tragedy itself.

Focusing on keeping people out of Europe by cutting their only existing routes is only going to push people fleeing for their lives to find other potentially even more dangerous routes to safety.

Instead of heeding calls to immediately restore a search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean on the model of Mare Nostrum, the EU chose to focus on its border control operation. EU member states have to abide by the Refugee Convention, both by the letter and by its spirit. Refugees fleeing persecution need safe and legal avenues for claiming asylum. These are principles to be upheld, and are not just hollow statements to be ignored in favour of building a more fortified Europe.

EU leaders have missed a golden opportunity to make a real difference in the lives and deaths of the people suffering. They have provided little but a kneejerk reaction to the images on their television screens and have decided to go after the smugglers instead of determining ways to protect those seeking their protection.

Much more was expected but Europe's leaders have shamefully failed to deliver. Unless matters are rectified, the shame of 23 April will increase with every death in the Mediterranean this summer.

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