The Mediterranean and the EU: Migration and Security
Harrowing trip to Europe

The situation in the Mediterranean is critical. Every year approximately 120,000 immigrants attempt to reach Europe in unsafe and inadequate vessels. Such trips are often facilitated by human traffickers based on the North African coasts. In 2014 this figure reached 130,000. It is now estimated that one million individuals are waiting on the North African coast to embark on this journey.

The journey across the Mediterranean is typically the last step of what is usually a harrowing trip to Europe. The countries of origin are usually tainted with conflict, economic and structural problems, and inefficient governance. The decision to undertake such a journey is generally one of necessity rather than choice.

The challenges facing the affected countries are three-fold. Firstly, the countries located in the Mediterranean littoral are facing with an unfolding humanitarian tragedy. Secondly, there are security concerns which cannot be ignored. Thirdly, a possible solution seems elusive.

A Humanitarian Tragedy

The vessels used to cross the Mediterranean Sea are often not seaworthy. Moreover, these trips are operated by human traffickers who have little regard for the safety and the security of the individuals concerned. Approximately 20,000 people are thought to have lost their lives in such circumstances over the past twenty years.

The hopelessness of the situation is compounded by the fact that rescue missions have become less frequent and less effective. The European Commission’s rescue mission, Operation Triton, was described by the UNHCR as being ‘woefully inadequate’. It has no operational resources of its own and it is entirely dependent on individual voluntary contributions from EU member states.

The Italian rescue Mission, Mare Nostrum, has registered some success and it can be credited with saving the lives of 100,000 refugees. However, with an operating cost of € 9,000,000 per month, this mission is placing a strain on Italy’s finances.

When reflecting on this situation, Pope Francis spoke on the need for international organisations to come together to encourage a common humanitarian solution. Political considerations must come second to humanitarian considerations. The respect for human life and the dignity of the individual must inform all discussions relating to this situation.

Security Concerns

The immigration crisis is a by-product of a wider security concern; the situation is a result of insecurity which in turn leads to more insecurity. A cursory look at the country of origin of most migrants reveals that most are escaping from hopeless situations in their homeland.

At present, the situation in sub-Saharan Africa is dire; the rise of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram has displaced a number of individuals whilst other countries, such as Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, are plagued by lawlessness, inefficient governmental structures and flagrant human rights abuses. The region is torn apart by violent conflicts and instability.

The Mediterranean itself is also a source of instability; Syria and Libya are torn apart by civil conflicts, and the rise of ISIL has destabilised the region. Criminal groups are taking advantage of this situation and are trafficking individuals.

All considerations must take into account the security and the dignity of the human being. This can only be met by adequate rescue operations and a relentless campaign to prevent human trafficking.

Nonetheless, there are other security concerns which arise from time to time. The Italian media reported that approximately 50,000 migrants who had applied for asylum couldn’t be traced. They are believed to have moved throughout the peninsula or attempted to reach other European countries. Health authorities also stated that there were two suspected malaria cases whilst a good percentage of migrants seen by the health authorities are believed to suffer from scabies. France has tightened border security as a result of these developments.

An arrest in May 2015 has also raised some fears about possible extremist infiltration in Europe. Abdel Majid Touil, a 22-year-old thought to be linked to the Bardo Museum attack in Tunis, was arrested in Milan. He is believed to have arrived in Italy on a migrant ship. Such developments have security implications on both a national and a regional level.

Mediterranean Sea

Elusive Solutions

The EU comes across as having no solution to this issue. There are a number of factors which one might consider for the purposes of this discussion.

There is a great danger of framing migration as ‘just another African problem’. Unfortunately, a popular misconception portrays Africa as a homogenous continent made up of a number of nation states that are all equally problematic. The dynamic at ground level is rather different.

The role of former colonial powers, the increasing influence of supranational companies, the increasing interest of the People’s Republic of China and unresolved conflicts have created some pockets of violence and discontent which have led to institutionalised incompetence, corruption, an appalling human rights record and bad governance. This acts as a deterrent for a number of qualified individuals who are seeking a brighter future away from their own countries.

This situation has also prevented the establishment of a meritocratic system which could put to good use the numerous natural and human resources. Fostering and encouraging conflict resolution and good governance are thus the departure point of any solution.

In Europe, migration has raised a plethora of issues of a humanitarian, social and political nature.

On a political level, the European Union and its member states recognise an unfolding crisis. They are aware of their humanitarian obligations and they admit that something must be done about the criminal groups that are operating these illegal voyages and endangering the lives of migrants. However, solutions have been hard to come by.

On a domestic level, most are concerned with the fact that an increase in migration could add a further strain to health and welfare services. These services, already burdened by budgetary cuts and austerity measures, are likely to baulk under further pressure. In addition, security services are facing an unprecedented security phenomenon, which is also stretching their resources.

On a social level, one can detect a rise in racism and xenophobia. These sentiments have fuelled emerging extremist groups which add to the prevailing tensions.

In this entire scenario, the European Union emerges as a hapless actor; torn within itself on how to arrive to a solution and shorn of all political clout to be able to reach such a solution. The proposal to introduce migrant quotas across the EU was met with some resistance and it further exposed the rifts which exist among EU governments. Such discontent is both unreasonable and understandable; without tackling the issue in the country of origin, the problem is likely to persist. 

Effective use of the ENP

The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is a policy instrument through which the European Union tries to engage in the region.

In the launch of the consultation for the review of the ENP, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini said: ‛The EU has a vital interest in building strong partnerships with its neighbours. Recent developments in the region have increased the challenges we all face: from economic pressures to irregular migration and security threats. We need a strong policy to be able to tackle these issues. We also need to understand better the different aspirations, values and interests of our partners.’

This is a good starting point; however, this programme also has its limitations. It is currently only limited to countries on the immediate periphery of the European Union. Moreover, engagement with partners is difficult when dealing with countries torn apart by civil strife and rendered into pseudo failed states.

In terms of migration, engagement with the countries of origin is paramount. Some work has been done in this regard, most notably in the Tampere Programme of 1999, The Hague Programme of 2005 and the Stockholm Programme of 2009.

The Tampere Programme provides a good starting point. It emphasises closer cooperation with the countries of origin and outlines policy options that can be implemented. The Programme tackles issues such as the prevention of human trafficking and the development of strong visa policies, the option of voluntary repatriation and the prevention of identity theft and false travel documents.

Nonetheless, all these measures presuppose a functioning state to reach an agreement with. All potential solutions may reach a standstill if this condition isn’t met.

The starting point of any discussion on this matter should be based on what principles should govern the policy itself; are we seeking to address the humanitarian crisis or the political crisis? Are we seeking long-term or short-term solutions?

The scenes of floating lifeless bodies, grieving families and vessels drowning are heart-wrenching. Such scenes should compel decision makers towards committing more resources to safeguard the lives of those who embark on such journeys. However, the political and social issues and the security concerns are also pressing.

In the short term, a legal migratory route might prevent some of the unnecessary deaths. However, a long-term solution is also required. Whilst there is a general agreement on the magnitude of the problem, a cohesive and long-lasting solution is still elusive.