UNHCR: Some 300 feared dead in fresh Mediterranean tragedy. And things are unlikely to change

According to UNHCR probably more than 300 migrants died after the boats they were travelling on sank in the Mediterranean Sea. You might remember we had a discussion about the reaction of the EU back in October 2013 after one of the biggest tragedies if this is a wake up call for the EU. Now, we have an another catastrophe. So looking back it probably wasn’t a real wake up call, was it? Read few comments.

Sarah WolffLecturer in Public Policy, Queen Mary University, London

You are right that this humanitarian crisis is continuing and has become a dramatic commonplace in European headlines. Yet little progress has been achieved on going beyond interception at sea and fighting irregular immigration.  Frontex is only a paper-tiger in this and its mandate should be expanded to deal with such humanitarian crisis for instance through rescue at sea competences and more independence from EU member states. This is however politically difficult at the moment. There is a clear resistance from EU countries and countries on the Mediterranean rim to cooperate in rescue and resettlement, maybe it’s time to act at different levels. First, more can be done across EU and UN agencies with increased cooperation between UNHCR, EASO, Frontex, etc. especially on rescue at sea, smuggling and asylum processing. Second a key issue is also the fact that ‘ghost ships’ often come from Turkey. A strategy between the EU and Turkey should be put in place. Finally, a more global approach with source and transit countries is needed, including with local authorities since often local fishermen are at the forefront either of smuggling or saving lives. A good initiative in this sense is the first European Migration Forum  organised by the European Economic and Social Committee last month.

See also use some quotes from my article in EU Observer on the New Frontex Director.

Christian KaunertProfessor of International Politics, University of Dundee

I think you are right – it was not really a wake up call at all. At the time, I had already hinted at some possible obstacles.

‘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.

If we look back at the last couple of years, I guess my predictions were true – and, in fact, it is again unlikely to change. Structural conditions persist and are unlikely to change. The Dublin system continues to be in the interest of Northern EU countries, and not in the interest of Mediterranean countries. As a result, things are unlikely to change.

Also, Italy did not continue with its Mare Nostrum operation whilst the EU did not want to take over this responsibility. The UK in particular opposed this on the grounds that it would act as a pull factor. Empirically, however, we can see that boats keep coming for the second structural reason that I mentioned before – increased conflicts, porous borders and income disparities. These reasons will remain and, therefore, the situation is unlikely to change. In fact, I think we will see many more of these tragedies in 2015 and 2016!

Leonhard den Hertog, Researcher, Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) 

et me quickly respond to your question. I think that these events are always wake up calls but that the long term effect on policy is often not sustained. This can also be seen from the different approaches to migration in the Mediterranean since the ‘Lampedusa tragedy’ in October 2013. Since then we have seen the Mare Nostrum mission by Italy, then followed by the Triton operation by EU border agency Frontex. These missions differ in their approach and reach, thus showing no long term approach to migration in the Mediterranean under a clear EU rule of law framework. Moreover, the events often do not provoke a real rethinking of border surveillance/control policies in the Mediterranean and of why these incidents happen. Namely, the boat is often the only option left to people to reach Europe via the Mediterranean as all other routes are cut off by control measures such as visa requirements, even if they would probably qualify for asylum in the EU (e.g. in the case of Syrians and Eritreans). With such humanitarian crises such as in Syria, there could thus be more attention to other (legal) channels for those people to enter the EU, such as the issuing of humanitarian visas. This could spare people such an unnecessarily dangerous and expensive journey.

We recently wrote a blog and paper on this.

Giacomo OrsiniResearch Student, Department of Sociology, University of Essex

As for today’s tragedy, after one year spent in Brussels, I guess that the whole issue is becoming clearer to me. There is indeed a major indicator of how these tragedies reach media and political momentum following – apparently – a precise timing. The point here is that tragedies happen almost on a daily basis on that stretch of sea (for a detailed chronicle, please have a look at Gabriele del Grande’s website): however, only some of them ‘benefit’ of a certain visibility/political concern.

Then, if you combine the timing of these events, with political demands & decisions, you might find a certain pattern that I would define as binary. On the one hand you have the death of many followed by institutional/media/public condemnation. On the other, the response on the ground is since 20 years to increase militarization of the sea as a sort of humanitarian obligation.

One and a half day ago, when the truck of the San Marco Battalion came to Lampedusa to take back on land all devices installed on the island for Mare Nostrum, another tragedy happened 100 miles from Lampedusa: 29 migrants died of exposure while already on board of coastguard boats that were tacking them back to the island. The tragedy reached visibility – at least on Italian media (and I didn’t checked international ones) with Italian institutional actors (such as the President of Senate Boldrini and the island’s mayor) immediately emphasizing the need of Mare Nostrum. Political condemnation addressed European disengagement at the border. One day later, the tragedy of the 200 deaths and yet, the same political narrative.

I don’t remember whether I told you or not but, the 3rd of October tragedy was also an extremely unusual event. When I went back to the island last September (2014) I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the first rescuers: all civilians that took on board of their 10 meters long leisure boat 47 migrants and waited for rescue from the Coastguard for over 1 hr and 30 mins. The accident took place at less than 1 mile from the island and Coastguard ‘s patrolling boat travel at 30 nautical miles per hour. I’m not going into details now here (it is just that I’m quite busy right now) but I can ensure that there are enough evidences that there have been either a) some failure in the rescuing system or, b) some deliberate misconduct by rescuing forces. Yet, Italian authorities again more or less intentionally covered this alternative narrative of the events with silence. I met survivors in Lampedusa in late September 2014 when they came to the island accompanied by institutional actors (including, again, Boldrini and Shulz) for the commemoration of the 2013 tragedy. Although they were not explicit, the feeling is that they cannot speak freely of what had happened – consider that they are still waiting to get Italian citizenship, as it was promised them one year before, and as it was granted to the victims. However, what they told me (but also immediately after the tragedy took place to the camera of a local film maker, is that 2 hours before the tragedy when they were already in distress, they were spotted and approached by two vessels that moved as the Coastguard use to do (here you have the video: it is in Italian, but if you go at minute 1:20 you have a survivor’s testimony in English): however, the boats soon left. Although an investigation has been opened by Agrigento judiciary (they MUST open it when these incidents happen) none of the survivors was ever called to give testimony. Even the first rescuers had never been called to give testimony.

Now, it is interesting to combine these – alternative? – chronicles of the events with other two somehow interrelated dynamics. In May 2013 the Italian Navy – and in particular the Chief of Staff, Admiral Giuseppe de Giorgi, as one of the main supporter of Mare Nostrum – demanded for new funding to renew the fleet (here  you have an article of the influential Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore – it is in Italian, but it is just to ground what I am saying). Following the events of the 3rd of October, the Italian government was granted a 30 million Euros transfer from the EU as emergency funding (here you have the Commission’s official statement): these money were then spent to run Mare Nostrum that had a cost of about 9 million € per month. In the 2014 Italian budget the Navy was finally granted a 5,4 billion € plan (strangely financed by the Ministry for Economic Development, rather than from the Defense) to renew the fleet over the next years (again, to ground what I am saying, here you find another article from another quite influential Italian newspaper). Official statements from both the Navy and the Italian government recall the need to secure lives at sea to justify their controversial decision (especially in times of economic crisis).

Now, holding all this complex picture in mind, you must also consider that the new Navy ships as well as several other border surveillance technologies that are tested and operate from the island (such as the radars installed in Lampedusa after the 3rd of October 2013, or the drones and recognition airplanes that fly from the island to monitor the sea) are produced by Finmeccanica or its affiliated companies – such as Selex and Alenia-Aermacchi. All these companies benefit of a variety of EU funding within the frame of diverse research projects aiming at enhance EU maritime border security. Seabilla is just one of the many and they are financed mainly by DG enterprise & the European Defense Agency (if you want more data, let me know).

Now, one last consideration that, to my understanding, come full circle.  Finmeccanica is not only one of the world biggest player in Defense technologies but it is also a state ran corporation: the Italian state owns the majority of the company’s shares. Now, I can clearly see that there is a sort of short circuit that might be worth exploring in terms of how certain tragedies (rather than others) attract media and political attention. But also, and more interestingly, it might be worth exploring (in light of the dynamics I just exposed to you) how/why political (and at times also media and civil society) discourse end out always framing the possible solutions to these tragedies exclusively in terms of further militarization of the sea. As I’m sure I already told you, only the 10-15% of those residing ‘illegally’ in the EU cross the border illegally (the vast majority are overstayers who entered with a valid VISA – as confirmed by FRONTEX). As for Italy, only some 10 to 20% of those crossing the border, enter by sea. The vast majority used to enter from the Croatian border (and thus by land) and now from Serbia through Slovenia and so on (not to mention those who enter with ferries coming from Greece, as the tragedy of the Norman Atlantic revealed). Empirical data show also that those who arrive in Lampedusa are for the vast majority asylum seekers (then not illegal/undocumented migrants). Thus, the question is why to secure that sea with such an expanse of money (operations carried out from Lampedusa constitute FRONTEX major expenditure)? Which is the threat? Why not to opt for a cheaper and safer humanitarian corridor, with a UNCHR office in Tunes port – to say one? Here one of my recent piece over the issue.

Now, again, trying to make sense of all this mess, consider how EU policy making over the issue works: which is the power that corporations have? How does lobby works? Is there an interest from Italian government to promote at the same time an expansion of defense apparatuses, good revenue from one of its most important factories and – why not – employment? May be to militarize the border is convenient for businesses & politics at once? Is there an issue of ‘revolving doors’ at the Commission level? Is it normal that Ilka Laitenen, the Executive Director of FRONTEX – who had increased FRONTEX budget from 6,5 million € of 2005 to 112 million € of 2011 and gained the right and the budget for the agency to buy their own equipment – sits on the advisory board of Security and Defence Agenda, a “think tank” reliant on funding from the arms industry? Please, have a look at chapter 3 of David Cronin’s book I attached, and especially the last sub-chapter.


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