One week after Lampedusa tragedy: Really a wake up call for the EU?

One week after the last disaster at Lampedusa would you say that it really could be a wake up call for the EU to somehow solve the problem or maybe you are less optimistic, and why? Read few comments.

Sarah WolffLecturer in Public Policy, Queen Mary University, London

The past decade of EU migration policies was one of ‘migration management’ and external border control. New policy instruments were adopted such as the mobility partnerships and EU readmission agreements. New EU-wide agencies created such as Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office were created. The European Parliament has also gained additional competences and been much more vocal.

Yet what remains etched on our memory is a series of dramatic events pertaining to a collective European failure. Today Lampedusa sadly epitomizes it but 10 years ago it was Ceuta and Melilla.  History repeats itself and the Mediterranean Sea continues to be the most deadly stretch of water in the world. And this is unlikely to stop given the huge refugee crisis ongoing in Syria and neighboring countries.

Beyond new policy instruments and agencies to ‘manage’ migration, what is missing at EU level (and at global level) is a real debate about human mobility. Rapidly evolving migratory fluxes challenges states in their micro-management of migration. South-South migratory fluxes are today surpassing South-North fluxes; most sub-Saharan migrants actually travel to other African countries and not to Europe. Further knowledge is needed about migration realities in order to contribute to an informed debate.

Commissioner Malmström at sea announced a rescue operation. This is only a short-term solution. What is missing is a common European migration policy whereby member states would truly coordinate their policies instead of blaming one another for EU’s failure. Labor migration should also be brought back in the debate. Migrants contribute positively to the wealth of European economies, and will be key in an ageing Europe. Yet, this is rarely debated especially if only ministers of interior remain leaders of the European political agenda.

Leonhard den Hertog, PhD Fellow University of Cologne & University of Edinburgh

Just a short comment from my side would be that although there will always be migration flows across the Mediterranean which inherently harbour such risks, the situation has gotten much worse due to the restrictive policy implemented on EU and Member State level over the past decades. This was not an isolated instance, deaths occur in great numbers in the Mediterranean, and with the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and the precarious situation of sub-Saharan Africans in some North-African countries these incidents may well further increase. The crisis in Syria furthermore feeds these flows. Europe should cater for more legal ways of migration, issue more in-Embassy humanitarian visas abroad and should aid the refugees now stuck in deplorable conditions in the countries neighbouring Syria. A new European surveillance system (EUROSUR) which is just voted on by the EP and which should cover all of the Mediterranean will not be a solution as long as the search and rescue capacities of the Member States remains underdeveloped or rules and responsibilities remain unclear. For example, there are regularly situations where migrants are kept on boats because States (mostly Malta and Italy) are unwilling to accept them. Private fishermen are also hesitant to help migrants as they sometimes fear criminal charges for their assistance. We should thus move away from the criminalisation of migration and towards a migrant-centred approach.

Laura Robbins-WrightPhD Candidate in Government, London School of Economics

There are numerous international conventions and resolutions that establish the obligations of both ships and states towards vessels and passengers. Every member of the European Union is party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to the International Maritime Organization Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea, which requires that ships assist individuals in distress at sea, regardless of their nationality, status, or circumstances, and that governments coordinate and cooperate in any search and rescue operations. Unfortunately, this is not the first such tragedy in the Mediterranean. However, the European Union can help ensure that it is the last by holding Member States to their obligations under international law and ensuring that Member States and agencies like Frontex have the resources necessary to effectively carry out their duties.

Christian KaunertSenior Lecturer in International Relations & Politics, University of Dundee

One the one hand, I am optimistic that this could be a wake up call. The tragedy is Lampedusa has an extraordinary magnitiude. This means that policy makers have to take it very seriously. The media reporting is very significant and no national or EU politician can escape being questioned about it. This is a good reason why it could be a wake up call.

However, there are many structural reasons why things are unlikely to change. Firstly the Dublin system in the EU benefits Northern European countries. Asylum seekers have to claim asylum in the first country in the EU that they have entered. This means most people will always come in via Spain, Italy, Malta, and Greece. These countries are at a significant disadvantage through this system. However, rich countries such as Germany, France, the UK, Scandinavia, and others are the greatest beneficiaries of this system. Most people crossing the Mediterranean will never reach those countries before reaching Italy, Spain, Malta or Greece. Therefore, it is not in the formers interest to change the system. They are the powerful EU countries, and, given it is not in their interest, the system is unlikely to be radically changed. Equally, burden-sharing in the EU has not been very developed before; it is unlikely to happen now.

Secondly, there are structural reasons why there are more increased flows of migrants coming through the Mediterranean, e.g. (1) increased conflicts, such as Syria, Libya, Egypt, and the wider Middle East, (2) more porous borders in the countries of North Africa after the Arab spring (due to less interest in enforcing those borders), coupled with an increasing income gap between African/Middle Eastern countries and the European Union. These are problems which will remain in the near to medium future. As a consequence, even if the EU changes its policy, things are unlikely to radically change due to the persisting structural factors.

Giacomo OrsiniResearch Student, Department of Sociology, University of Essex

My considerations:

– tragedies of this kind happens frequently in the Sicilian channel: the 26th of December of 1996, a boat with more than 350 Tamil asylum seekers sank a few miles away from Portopalo di Capopassero (the southernmost corner of the Sicilian island) and no one survived. No media and neither political attention.

– Migrant-boats never usually reach the coast of Lampedusa: they are taken by either the coast guard or the navy many miles south from the island, and then they are escorted to Lampedusa’s port. This time the boat was undetected until less than one mile southern than Lampedusa. According to official statement, this is due to the fact that FRONTEX operations where concentrated around the northern part of the channel, as a response to the increasing number of migrants-boats arrivals along the coast of Sicily (in particular between Sciacca, than down to Portopalo di Capopassero, and then up to Catania). In reality, arrivals in this part of Sicily were taking place since years and with a similar if not higher frequency. But before, no media and neither political attention.

So, I’ve to say that I am facing some trouble now to understand why the situation changed all of a sudden: in other words, why these dynamics became relevant at either the EU and national level overnight, on the light of an event that was not so unusual in that very sea.

What about he actual Libyan situation (USA friendly prime minister Zeidan was kidnapped few days ago)?

In any case, I don’t really thing that the situation will change in terms of European external border management/migration policies. As I said, this is nothing new: what it is new is the media and political response.

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