Refugees and migrants from around the world have gathered on the coast of Libya. They are pushed from home by poverty, war and insecurity, and pulled by the promise of a better life in Europe. So they pay smugglers to pack them into rubber boats and set off across the Mediterranean Sea toward Europe.
This year, more than 115,000 refugees and migrants have successfully used this route, while 2,361 have lost their lives. That the first number is so high – and the latter so low – is due to the search and rescue vessels that patrol international waters close to the Libyan coast.
Many of these boats belong to NGOs such as Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. But while the NGOs argue that their presence is vital to reducing the numbers of lost lives at sea, European governments counter that the NGOs are making the job easier for smugglers, while also encouraging more refugees and migrants to make the dangerous journey.
In June, immigration spokesperson Marcus Knuth for the ruling coalition Liberal Party (Venstre) argued that NGOs that carry out this type of work should no longer receive government aid.
“The aid ships create an incentive to take the perilous journey over the Mediterranean, and I am critical of that. That’s why we should look at how these organisations get their support and if any of it comes from Denmark,” Knuth told Berlingske.
The Danish People’s Party (DF) supported the Liberals’ proposal.
“Aid organisations are encouraging a situation in which people cram themselves into boats and risk drowning. We should ban the relevant organisations from operating in these areas,” DF’s immigration spokesperson Martin Henriksen told Berlingske.
But stopping search and rescue missions would have little impact on the pressure of migration from North Africa, the NGOs reply. Instead, solutions are needed that address the crises and poverty that have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants to a failed North African state, where they undertake a risky sea voyage in search of opportunity.
Immigration and terrorism are the two most pressing issues facing Europe, according to the European Commission’s latest study of public opinion, the Eurobarometer. But while European leaders attempt to address these anxieties through tightened immigration and refugee policies, they are mindful of the outrage that erupted after the publication of the image of the washed-up body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, when it became clear that allowing refugees and migrants to drown in the Mediterranean is not a viable deterrence strategy.
So European leaders are stuck with two questions. First, how do does Europe keep the number of irregular migrants to a minimum without allowing mass drownings in the Mediterranean? And, second, what is Europe to do with those that do arrive and have legitimate a claim?
In response to Venstre’s proposal to sanction NGOs, immigration spokesperson for the Conservative People’s Party (Konservative) Naser Khader articulated this ethical dilemma.
“Of course we have to save lives. But I also think that the NGO ships share the responsibility for the people who make the perilous journey across the Sahara to take a rubber boat from Libya. I think the NGOs need to withdraw their boats and use their energies to advocate for legal and safe ways to seek asylum in Europe.”
This summer, the issue was again at the top of Europe’s political agenda, as Italy struggled to manage the 80,000 refugees and migrants that landed on its shores – 85 percent of all arrivals in Europe this year.
The Italian government threatened to give more than 200,000 refugees and migrants visas unless it was offered more EU support and offers of resettlement. Austria responded by sending troops to its Italian border, which it threatened to close if Italy followed through on its threat.
In July, European foreign ministers in Tallinn, Estonia, addressed the escalating conflict, agreeing to prolong the anti-trafficking initiative Operation Sophia until the end of 2018. 25 European countries contribute to Operation Sophia, which involves patrolling international waters in the Mediterranean to capture and dispose of migrant and smuggler boats in hopes of shutting down trafficking routes.
While Operation Sophia has saved the lives of more than 30,000 refugees since it was established in 2015, the House of Lords – the upper chamber of the UK Parliament – released a report last month arguing that the operation was a failure.
“A naval mission is the wrong tool to tackle irregular migration which begins onshore: once the boats have set sail, it is too late to undermine the business of people smuggling. An unintended consequence of Operation Sophia’s destruction of vessels has been that the smugglers have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels. This has led to a tragic increase in deaths – 2,150 in 2017 to date,” the authors wrote in ‘Operation Sophia: a failed mission’.
According to the House of Lords’ report, smugglers once used larger wooden vessels carrying up to 500 migrants and refugees, but these kinds of boats are now rarely seen. This is, in part, because of Operation Sophia’s strategy of destroying vessels used to traffic refugees and migrants – replacing the large boats was expensive.
Instead, there has been a transition to rubber dinghies with outboard motors. Carrying up to 100 passengers – ten times more than they are designed for – the dinghies are unstable and are often launched without enough fuel to reach the European mainland.
But according to Tuesday Reitano, deputy director of the think tank The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, this is a deliberate strategy.
In 2013, following the deaths of hundreds of migrants and refugees near the island of Lampedusa, Italy began the search and rescue programme Mare Nostrum, which patrolled much closer to the Libyan coast than before. Reitano argues that smugglers soon realised that their boats only needed to enter international waters and make a distress call, and the Italian coastguard would move in to pick them up.
“After the smuggling networks incorporated Mare Nostrum into their business plans, observers immediately saw an increase in rescue missions involving boats without a crew and without enough fuel to reach Italian shores,” says Reitano.
A growing market
The added benefit to using the rubber dinghies is that it keeps down costs, which makes it cheaper to buy a place on the boat. Reitano explains that smugglers have professionalised the business in recent years, with agents scouring refugee camps and slums for potential clients. They then offer potential refugees transport to Libya, where they charge them for a place on the boats.
The success of this strategy can be seen in the wide variety of nationalities arriving in Italy. The largest number of arrivals was from Nigeria (17 percent), while Bangladesh came second, with 10 percent of all arrivals. The remaining top ten nationalities were from West Africa, with Eritreans in ninth place.
While poor, the majority of these countries are considered safe, making the chances of successful asylum applications low. In Italy, only 44 percent of asylum applications were successful in the first three months of 2017. And of the 8,300 positive cases, just over half were given not refugee status, but humanitarian visas.
It was Italy’s threat to issue humanitarian visas to all arrivals that frightened European leaders this summer. The threat worked, and the EU promised €35 million to help manage the country’s strained refugee system. Leaders also agreed to introduce restrictions on the sale and export of inflatable boats and outboard motors “where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they will be used by people smugglers and human traffickers.”
These are not viable long-term solutions, according to Danish foreign minister Anders Samuelsen, who doesn’t support Venstre’s proposal to sanction NGOs that perform search and rescue missions. Trafficking across the Mediterranean can only be stopped after Libya is stabilised, and repatriation programmes are signed with countries such as Nigeria.
“We need to solve the border problems south of Libya, because it is really there that Schengen’s borders start. We need to make deals with the countries that border Libya. If we make some deals that allow us to send people back, it will send a strong signal, and ultimately end this situation,” Samuelsen told Politiken newspaper, adding that NGO search and rescue missions were not the problem.
Refugees shouldn’t have to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to apply for asylum, argue the Social Democrats (Socialdemokraterne), who proposed in July the establishment of refugee-processing centres in North Africa and south of the Sahara.
“It would mean that migrants don’t have to use their families’ savings to pay human traffickers, while also risking life and limb to get to Europe,” Europe spokesperson Peter Hummelgaard told Berlingske, adding that it would act as a deterrence to North African and South Asian migrants who currently use the same migration routes as refugees.
Socialdemokraterne have the support of the coalition right-wing government along with the left-wing Socialist People’s Party (SF).
“We need to quickly get Europe’s outer borders under control, and that’s the responsibility of Frontex,” SF MP Holger K. Nielsen told Berlingske. “Then we need to work toward ensuring that asylum applications are processed closer to the conflicts, and that we have deals with countries to ensure repatriations that limit the flow. We also need to ensure that refugees are fairly distributed across the EU.”
In the meantime, opposition to search and rescue missions is building in Europe. In France, the populist youth movement Génération Identitaire is campaigning against search and rescue, arguing that mass immigration from Africa puts Europe’s cultural history and ethnic identity at risk.
This summer, the group launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than €140,000 to send a boat to the Mediterranean to disrupt search and rescue missions.
Pulling in the opposite direction are organisations such as Blaming the Rescuers, a group of researchers and activists who argue that Europe has a moral responsibility to help those who choose to head to sea.
“Considering the condition of migrants in Libya today, preventing migrants from departing from Libyan territory amounts to complicity with arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, forced labour and trafficking,” the group states.
“As long as migrants are forced to resort to smugglers for lack of legal pathways, proactive Search and Rescue at sea will be a humanitarian necessity – whether it is operated by states or NGOs. Only a fundamental re-orientation of the EU’s migration policies to grant legal and safe passage may bring the smuggling business, the daily reality of thousands of migrants in distress, and the need to rescue them to an end.” M