How to deal with humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean

Distressing scenes of foundering boats and bodies washed up on the shore are forcing European leaders to consider how best to deal with waves of immigrants.

April 23, 2015

Migration features as a major issue in the political discourse of right wing parties in several EU countries, and is a voter preoccupation in the current election debates in this country.

It has been the role of EU Neighbourhood policies and some national government foreign aid policies to improve economic conditions in countries to the south of the Mediterranean to help reduce the flow of economic migrants. More money and sophisticated surveillance methods have strengthened the efforts of Frontex to secure the EU’s external borders. The UK has invested in measures to seal off the port of Calais to deter migrants camped in the area from attempting to reach this country illegally.

In the face of the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean such piecemeal efforts are inadequate. How could and should the EU respond? Set up holding camps south of EU borders, in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, where migrants’ claims can be processed and a safe passage into Europe devised? Increase financial and logistic support for a more effective search and rescue mission that the current Operation Triton is capable of? Reinforce Europol’s efforts to identify and neutralise the human smugglers exploiting the political crisis in Libya? Revise the Dublin Regulation which is manifestly unhelpful to those southern EU countries where most of the current flow of migrants touch land if they have survived crossing the Mediterranean? This crisis requires a coordinated response from the 28 member states but so far this has been lacking.

The EU emergency summit in Brussels on April 23, 2015 resulted in agreement on a short term measure only: to increase the Frontex budget threefold to bring it to the level of the Italian Mare Nostrum mission that ended in October 2014 as deemed too expensive for the EU to take over. The UK has committed the navy's flagship HMS Bulwark and two further patrol vessels but will not offer asylum or resettlement to any refugees. The long term issues were not addressed to create opportunities for people to come to Europe legally, to increase resettlement, family reunification and humanitarian visas or to work towards a coherent EU wide migration policy.