This year alone, more than 165,000 refugees and migrants have reached Europe via the Mediterranean. The vast majority (140,000) arrived in Italy. They flee places of political and economic instability such as Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. Refugees pay Libyan smugglers more than €1000 to board overcrowded, unseaworthy boats in search of a better life in Europe. Many of these boats sink; this year an estimated 3343 people have perished at sea. ‘Mare Nostrum’, the Italian search-and-rescue operation, has saved more than 150,000 people from similar fates since its inception in October 2013. However, this operation came at a cost of €9 million per month, a burden the Italian government could ill afford. The program was also criticised for being a possible ‘pull-factor’ for migrants and refugees, encouraging would-be immigrants to make dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean with the expectation of rescue.
On November 1 the EU-backed Operation Triton, run by the EU border control agency, Frontex, replaced Mare Nostrum. However, Operation Triton is different in three key areas. First, it has less than a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum. Second, its charter dictates it can only operate within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast, while Mare Nostrum operated in international waters. Third, Operation Triton’s purpose is not explicitly search-and-rescue, but rather border control and surveillance. However, Italy and Frontex have both assured it would abide by maritime laws and respond to distress calls from other boats.
On the one hand, Operation Triton comes at a great relief to Italy; with the Italian Interior minister Angelino Alfano saying, ‘We now feel that we can say that Europe is doing its share.’ However, Mare Nostrum disbanded amid criticism from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the UNHCR, who claimed that the ending of Mare Nostrum without a similar search-and-rescue operation to replace it, ‘will undoubtedly increase the risk for those trying to find safety in Europe, and could lead to more refugees and migrants perishing at sea.
This change comes at a critical time. By some estimates, more than 600,000 migrants are waiting on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The deterioration of state authority in Libya creates optimal conditions for smugglers who can make as much as €500,000 on a single boat bound for Europe. As conflict in North Africa, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa intensifies, these dangerous boat trips will occur more frequently at the same time search-and-rescue operations are being cut. This could lead to one of two outcomes: either Operation Triton exhausts its personnel and resources and by going massively over budget, or a humanitarian crisis will unfold on the shores of Europe.
In addition, the humanitarian imperative to save lives clashes with the policy of many governments to curb immigration. The rise of far-right parties across the European continent is creating an increasingly unwelcome environment for the migrants and refugees that survive the crossing. Politicians who seek to block immigration and argue that European taxpayers should not be responsible for taking care of refugees and migrants are surging in the polls as unemployment rises.
If Europe seeks more controlled immigration, the path of the far right is hardly the one to follow. More must be done to prevent an immigration and humanitarian crisis on Europe’s shores. Most important, European countries must ensure the burden of Mediterranean migration is shared equitably. At the moment, generally poorer Southern European countries have no choice but to take the lion’s share of asylum applicants. This occurs because the Dublin Regulation states the responsibility for examining an asylum claim lies primarily with the member state which played the greatest part in the applicant’s entry to the EU. This is often the first member state in which the asylum-seeker lands. While their application is processed, the asylum-seeker has the right to food, first aid and shelter in a reception center, placing monetary as well as a bureaucratic burden on the member states that border the Mediterranean Sea.
Reform could take the form of a system whereby EU member states that have fewer asylum-seekers—Poland, for example—take more of them. Another option would be to distribute migrants among states in proportion to population. Incoming President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently called for a number of reforms. Among the proposed reforms is a stronger EU asylum policy, additional funding for Frontex, more substantial EU policy on labor migration for third-country nationals, and the creation of a stand-alone commissioner for migration. Additionally, the UNHCR called on the EU to boost efforts to facilitate family reunification and create credible legal alternatives to immigration via the Mediterranean, such as humanitarian admission, private sponsorship, and the use of programs such as student and employment visas to benefit refugees.
Furthermore, Operation Triton has little chance of success unless it is implemented in conjunction with a diplomatic approach focused on improving third countries’ ability to manage migratory flows and cripple smuggling networks. Former Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Emma Bonino, recently called for the creation of a commissioner of the Mediterranean. In her words, ‘This commissioner should develop a new relationship with the countries of the Southern Mediterranean and untangle the maze of the EU’s legal instruments and budget to support this vision.’ For Bonino, migration is a symptom of the EU’s relationship with the southern Mediterranean, and engagement in a series of ‘low-politics’, such as humanitarian assistance, development, and trade, with these countries can help tackle illegal immigration.
In short, without meaningful reforms in immigration and southern Mediterranean engagement, Operation Triton risks being a monumental failure both morally and politically. Northern Europe must share the burden of illegal migration despite calls from the far right, lest the divide between Northern European member states and their Southern associates grow deeper. Operation Triton should not seek to replace Mare Nostrum. Rather, it should seek to be an improvement over its predecessor.