Watching video footage of a search and rescue mission off the coast of the small Greek island of Leros is a jarring experience. In the early morning hours, an exhausted mother passes her frightened three-year-old girl over dark water to a sympathetic but harried shipman. The mother then steps over and around dozens of fellow passengers to reach safety on the rescue ship. The Greek government estimates that, in the past year, around 18,000 immigrants have entered Greece by way of these small islands. An additional 1,500 travelers did not survive the journey.
Some of these individuals are migrants, individuals who voluntarily leave their home countries to improve their circumstances. But the vast majority are refugees, for whom leaving home was necessary for survival. Violence in the Middle East and North Africa is driving an increasing number of refugees to cross the Mediterranean, and Europe is extraordinarily unprepared to receive them. With no solution in sight, malnourished, terrified, and exhausted refugees face poorly executed search and rescue missions, bureaucratic disaster, and severely limited asylum options.
Roots of the Crisis
Political instability throughout the Middle East and North Africa is driving the crisis in several ways. In particular, civil wars have driven these regions’ residents to flee. In Syria, brutality from ISIS militants and Bashar al-Assad’s regime has prompted a mass exodus into Greece and Turkey. Although the Western media has devoted less attention to the growing conflict in Libya, the country’s instability has resulted in an official waitlist of one million people waiting to cross into Europe.
But displaced Libyans are not the only ones seeking to cross the Mediterranean. Many who leave Libya originally hail from other African nations, such as Guinea and Senegal. No longer kept out by a dictatorial government with strict travel policies, they view passing through Libya as their path out of Africa. The situation is similar in Syria, where immigrants from countries such as Afghanistan see an opportunity to cross into Europe. Therefore, Europe is not just facing a flow of refugees from new crises, but from old ones as well.
Regardless of their origins, the rise in Europe-bound refugees has added another dimension to the crisis: greater profitability for smugglers. Organized crime syndicates that deal exclusively in migrant smuggling make up an illicit industry worth nearly $7 billion per year. Its business model relies mostly on hidden fees and payments made up front. In this way, the smuggler receives payment even if the migrant drowns at sea. With rises in demand caused by internal drives for immigration, smugglers are able to raise prices for these trips. Smugglers also have an incentive to increase the number of trips by providing more boats, sending migrants in anything that “barely floats.” These boats—typically small dinghies—are generally abandoned by the smugglers, then apprehended by European forces. In effect, smugglers are making higher profits from a greater number of trips across the Mediterranean in boats that are unseaworthy and increasingly overcrowded, at the expense of those they are supposedly helping.
Take the booming illegal empire of Tripoli-based smuggler Ermias Ghermany. His operations follow the aforementioned trend: boats are considered disposable, and payment is received up front. For those migrants who are unsure about the journey, Ghermany has added an innovation of his own. For months before the crossing, thousands of his “clients” are locked up in warehouses without means of communication with the outside world. Disease, starvation, and heat stroke are just a few of the risks refugees take with these businesses before even setting foot on a boat. If they even make it onto one of them, the dangers of unsafe transport and overcrowding lie ahead. Those trying to make the crossing are abused both by the crisis conditions of their homelands and the businesses through which they seek refuge.
There has been little, misguided action on Europe’s part to stem the flow at the source. Consider their shift in response to the influx of refugees: until this past November, the EU operated a search and rescue program known as Mare Nostrum. This effort, largely shouldered by the Italian government, had a relatively successful track record of preventing deaths at sea. In November, however, the EU shifted to a program explicitly focused on “border control.” It received one-third of the funding of the preceding program, and consisted of seven ships, two planes, and one helicopter. Triton exemplified the glaring gaps in Europe’s consideration of the problem. Instead of rescuing immigrants, it employed aggressive attack and pursuit techniques to reduce the supply of boats that criminals used, leading smugglers to force even more immigrants into even smaller, more dangerous vessels, while simultaneously raising prices. Many have have blamed Operation Triton’s tactics for the deaths of seven hundred refugees at sea earlier this year.
This tragedy prompted an emergency meeting of European leaders and a return of full funding to Mare Nostrum. However, restoring funding to this program has not solved other aspects of the problem. The reinstatement of search and rescue operations is a first step. To see any real progress, however, this action must be complemented by longer-term efforts to secure migrants’ well being. As demonstrated by Italian authorities’ recent forced removal of dozens of immigrants from the French-Italian border, Europe still lacks a solid plan of how to effectively relocate and integrate refugees once they have landed on its shores.
The underlying problem with this aspect of Europe’s response lies in its unequal burden sharing. Nations that are smaller and closer to North Africa, such as Greece and Italy, are bearing both the financial and physical brunt of accommodating these refugee populations. For example, Mare Nostrum was mainly Italian-led and funded. Italy is also creating ninety-day “shelters” for young children and families who need accommodations.
By contrast, northern European countries have done little to alleviate the crisis. Consider the response of countries like the United Kingdom. Despite pledging support to the various initiatives aimed at tackling the crisis, Britain still holds one of the lowest acceptance rates of asylum seekers in Europe. Its neighbor, Ireland, has the lowest acceptance rate, accepting only 8.2 asylum seekers for every 100,000 inhabitants. Germany and France do not fare much better by these numbers. Nations not immediately impacted by the crisis tend to prioritize border control over absorption of refugees. This reluctance to take action is causing divisions in Europe’s response. Without a unified response, Europe’s immigration crisis will only continue to grow as more people attempt to enter its borders, and major European powers try to buck-pass their way out of the problem.
If the EU wants to stem the loss of life due to the crisis, it must not only bolster search and rescue missions and look for smugglers, but also better share the burden of accommodating migrants who do make it past border control initiatives. In the longer term, it must also find a means of integrating those migrants into European society.
Immigrants have proved their potential to save schools from closure, populate the aging workforce, and bring government-supported economic activity to needy regions. They can only bring these benefits to Europe if the EU takes a more humane approach towards resolving the crisis. However, if Europe continues to view migration as solely a military and security issue, the crisis will only continue to cost lives and money to no end.
The image featured in this article depicts the rescue of distressed migrants. The original image can be found on the official US Navy flickr page.