The perilous crossing of the Mediterranean has been for thousands of people the last hope of escaping war, poverty or persecution. Every day many migrants are rescued in the Mediterranean while trying to reach European territory. This April, a shipwreck between the coast of Syria and the Italian island Lampedusa caused the death of up to 800 migrants. The European leaders were quick at expressing their condolences and at scheduling a meeting. One of the measures agreed was to reinforce the EU’s Operation Triton, in order to increase the search and rescue possibilities, although some European leaders had before refused to support the rescue operation since they saw it as an encouraging factor for migrants to come to Europe.
During the first hours of 19April, the ship with more than 800 migrants on board sent a distress call which was answered by the merchant ship “King Jacob”. The shipwreck happened when the merchant ship made its approach in order to rescue the migrants, who had paid smugglers in order to reach the European territory. Carlota Sami, a spokesperson of the UN Refugee Agency in the South of Europe, said to the Associated Press that “survivors told aid workers the wreck was caused when one of the smugglers crashed the boat against the Portuguese-flagged King Jacob container ship that had responded to a distress call”. There were only 28 survivors.
After the incident the Foreign and Interior ministers of the EU member states and the European leaders had two separate meetings in which they reached similar decisions regarding the measures to be pursued in order to deal with the situation in the Mediterranean. They agreed on tripling the financial resources and increasing the number of available means of the Triton and Poseidon operations, making efforts to destroy the smugglers’ vessels, bringing smugglers and traffickers to justice and strengthening political cooperation with African partners to fight smuggling and illegal immigration.
The return of the illegal migrants to their countries of origin continues to be a main point of the member states’ plans, as the European Council wants to set up a new and faster return programme. However, it also aims to implement a pilot project on resettlement across the EU of persons who are in need of protection, as well as, to examine ways to organize a voluntary emergency relocation of people who were granted international protection between the member states.
If the projects of resettlement and relocation of persons go ahead, it will be a step towards a more solidary way of dealing with the migration in the Mediterranean, which is mainly affecting Italy and Greece. According to the Dublin II Regulation, only one member state is responsible for the examination of the asylum applications and, in case of refusal, for the costs of the return of the persons. The member state in question is the first one that the migrant gets to. This puts more pressure on the border countries.
The actions agreed by the member states were considered unsatisfactory by human rights groups. Human Right Watch's Executive Director Kenneth Roth said that “it's not enough to increase EU boats at sea if they remain focused on protecting Europe's borders rather than the people at sea who are dying trying to get there”. Amnesty International considered the European Council a "face-saving not a life-saving operation". The UN refugee agency pressed the EU to "demonstrate moral and political leadership" when dealing with the migration in the Mediterranean.
The European Commission claims that Frontex can run search and rescue operations through Operation Triton, as its ships are obliged under international law to assist people in distress. However, its actions are limited to 30 nautical miles from the coast while the previous Italian operation Mare Nostrum carried out searches across 27,000 square miles of sea.
On 1 November 2014, the Italian government ended the operation Mare Nostrum, which had been launched a year before. It was then replaced by the Operation Triton, which is coordinated by the EU agency Frontex and relies on the resources made available by the member states. At its inception it had a monthly budget of 2.9 million euros, a third less than Mare Nostrum, and only had at its disposal seven coastguard vessels, two planes and one helicopter.
The EU Member states have now agreed to raise the budget of the operation to 9 million euros per month and countries which had refused to participate before have now committed to partake in the operation. The United Kingdom’s government, for example, has now agreed to send the helicopter carrier HMS Bulwark, two naval patrol boats and three helicopters.
Earlier this year the European Commission raised the possibility of establishing immigrant-processing centres outside the EU, in order to curb the movement of people across the Mediterranean and reduce the numbers of illegal migrants. If the idea is accepted, it will then be necessary to establish a way to distribute the migrants by the 28 member states. However, this idea cannot be expected to be implemented anytime soon.
There is an urgent need to find new solutions to avoid lives being lost at sea. The number of casualties is expected to be higher this year compared with 2014. According to preliminary figures by the International Organisation for Migration, from January until March at least 486 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, compared with 46 during the same period last year, although the number of migrants arriving by sea remains roughly the same. After the latest wrecking, up to 800 people joined the list of casualties.