The Boat That Rocked the European Union

Amidst reports of a second boat disaster off the coast of Lampedusa, many are calling into question the existing mechanisms in place throughout the European Union to protect migrants. Lampedusa is a major point of entry for many migrants entering Europe, due to its geographic proximity to Northern Africa. The United Nations is calling for shared accountability amongst European Union member states to provide assistance to those in need. With the first tragedy claiming the lives of over 300 individuals1, and 27 lives having already been lost on the second boat to capsize in recent days, those calls are increasingly being echoed in the southern member states of the EU.

Image Courtesy of Martin Franca, Ⓒ 2010, Some Rights Reserved

Image Courtesy of Martin Franca, Ⓒ 2010, Some Rights Reserved

Whilst some within the European Union are calling for Frontex, the organisation entrusted with EU border control, to conduct a region-wide search and rescue operation, this has been met by hesitation on the part of several European government officials. Frontex’s main objective has, since its establishment in 2005, been the protection of border security against non-member states. The control of illegal immigration falls within this category. The question of group accountability concerns whether or not states are willing to sacrifice levels of their national sovereignty in order to protect illegal migrants. According to those who agree with Fortress Europe3 thinking, allowing illegal migrants into the country is seemingly not worth the risk.

Member states of the European Union have publicly stated concerns that the economic burden of accepting illegal migrants and granting them citizenship will be too great to bear. Given the fact that the Eurozone came out of recession a mere two months ago, and that 17 of the European Union’s 28 member states are part of the troubled Eurozone, the economic constraints are evident. However, does this mean that human rights can, or should, be sacrificed, in the name of economic stability? Fleeing human rights violations and persecution, many migrants are searching for socio-economic prospects. However, they are not necessarily met by the guarantee of a better life. The initial journey across the Mediterranean Sea is plagued with dangers, as is evident by the recent tragedies. Boats are often heavily overcrowded. Once migrants arrive on European soil illegally, they must live under-the-radar and as a result, often are unable to claim access to health care, education and other basic necessities.

 According to former Chair of the Committee of Migrant Workers Mr. Kariyawasam, “migrant workers are like water. They flow from where the demand is, to where the supply can be [and] it’s up the international community to set up a regulatory mechanism for workers to travel from point A to B … that supply and demand equation should be handled devoid of xenophobia.”4 With this, it is undeniable that as a process itself, migration cannot be prevented outright. The only possibilities open to policy makers are therefore those involving its regulation and control. Opening up the possibilities of legal migration makes illegal immigration less appealing and takes the power out of the hands of human traffickers. However, this in turn places the economic burden in the hands of receiving countries that are either ill equipped or unwilling to shoulder the costs.

Statistics published by the United Nations reveal that in 2011, 83% of asylum claims in Europe were made to EU member states. However, in Southern Europe, asylum applications received halved between 2011 and 2012.5 They credit this to the changing political climate in Northern Africa. Does this mean that a reduced number of asylum applications will lead to lower levels of migration? Arguably not—a higher number of individuals are resorting to migrating by illegal measures and ensuring their passage by paying large sums of money to human trafficking organisations.

Whilst the boat tragedies have sparked questions surrounding responses by the European Union, it is also important to take note of local level responses. Italy has announced that a state funeral will be held for those migrants who died as a result of the boat disasters. The capacity of an area designated to receive immigrants in Lampedusa is approximately 250; however, at the time the first boat capsized, there were more than 1200 individuals utilising these resources. Reports have surfaced recently that conditions at the centre have deteriorated significantly, with some migrants now without access to adequate shelter. There is an evident need for further resources to be distributed to one of Europe’s most popular migrant entry points.6

As Italian Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano remarked, “Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy”7, drawing attention back toward shared responsibility both economically and socio-politically. Whether or not the responsibility of migrant care comes under the European Union umbrella or is the sole responsibility of specific states, it seems that the care in itself has become a secondary focus. Whilst undoubtedly necessary, the lengthy processes involved in expanding legislation draws the focus away from the critical issue at hand.