This is a guest post by Amanda Roth, a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program. She is a graduate student at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs, where she studies international security policy.
Last week, a ship carrying hundreds of migrants trying to reach Europe capsized in the Mediterranean, killing nearly 900. The tragic incident and unprecedented death toll has reignited a discussion of the growing migration crisis in the Mediterranean and Europe’s obligation to assist.
Last year, Italy terminated Operation Mare Nostrum, an extensive and relatively successful search and rescue operation. The operation began in response to the 2013 Lampedusa crash, in which more than 300 migrants died. Under Mare Nostrum, Italy rescued thousands of migrants, housed and clothed them, and attempted to adjudicate asylum claims. However, with challenges of its own, Italy struggled to fund the program and to provide services for all migrants within its own borders. The Dublin Regulation, an EU law, dictates that the European country that is the first point of entry must handle the asylum application, leaving countries bordering the Mediterranean, such as Italy and Malta, overwhelmed by applications. Approximately 90 percent of refugees end up in only a few EU member states.
European leaders refused to help fund Operation Mare Nostrum and to accommodate migrants. Some argued that rescue missions served as a “pull factor” and encouraged migrants to make the dangerous journey, knowing that they would be rescued. Unable to foot the costs itself, Italy ended the program.
It’s difficult to know if Operation Mare Nostrum could have prevented this week’s tragedy. However, two things are clear. The first is the glaring fault in the logic that ended Operation Mare Nostrum—search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean aren’t a significant “pull factor” attracting migrants. Political violence in Mali, terrorism in West Africa, the Syrian civil war, and continued poverty and oppression mean that just as many people continue to make the journey. The second obvious conclusion is that search and rescue operations are a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. Operation Mare Nostrum helped save thousands of lives, but it could not address the root causes of migration from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.
European leaders are gathering in Luxemburg this week to discuss possible solutions—including increased funding for operations such as Mare Nostrum, and targeted missions to arrest smugglers and dismantle their networks.
Leaders gathered in Luxemburg this week should look at solutions that may help stem the flow of migrants in more incremental yet sustainable ways. While it is beyond Europe’s capacity to fix violence in Mali or stop the repressive regime in Eritrea, improving its own immigration system may help mitigate the flow and reduce deaths. Providing more funding for search and rescue is one critical step, but like that of the United States, Europe’s immigration system is deeply flawed.
There are more creative solutions being discussed. Setting up processing centers in Africa and the Middle East, so individuals can apply for asylum before crossing the Mediterranean, may help. Family reunification processes can be simplified. The EU could revisit the Dublin Convention, which disproportionately burdens poorer Southern European nations with the responsibility of responding to waves of undocumented migrants. Immediately allowing for larger number of asylum claims is critical.
These measures won’t stop the flow of migrants to Europe. But, they could keep the crisis from escalating. It is clear that leaders must look beyond short-term fixes, and address this issue in a more sustainable and comprehensive way.