Deadly Mediterranean shipwreck spurs European U-turn on migrant crisis

The biggest shift in Europe's thinking: how it might reduce migration at the source by stabilizing countries like Libya.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Survivors of the boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya Saturday, wait to disembark from Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, at Catania Harbor, Italy, on Monday. A smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off Libya's coast as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant tragedy and intensifying pressure on the European Union Sunday to finally meet demands for decisive action.

Launched just six months ago, the European Union's "Triton" Mediterranean patrol mission was meant to end an Italian search-and-rescue operation viewed as too expensive and too much of an incentive for migrants to illegally cross the sea to try and reach Europe.

But the past week, which saw as many as 1,300 migrants drown when their boats capsized during the crossing – including up to 800 on a people-smuggling ship that capsized off the coast of Italy this weekend – has changed European thinking.

Now, the EU isn't just doing a U-turn on Triton, beefing up its resources and scope to once again try to rescue migrants in harm's way on the high seas. It is also considering whether – and how – to deal with the problem at its source: Libya, where people smugglers operate with impunity amid the country's civil chaos.

“I hope today is the turning point in the European conscience, not to go back to promises without actions,” Federica Mogherini, the EU head of foreign policy and a former Italian foreign minister, said Monday. “As after the Paris attacks in January we developed, as the European Union, a truly European sense of urgency and solidarity to counter terrorism, I think that today we are developing a truly European sense of urgency and solidarity in fighting human trafficking and saving lives.”

Back to square one

The influx of migrants and refugees has overwhelmed Europe – especially Italy and other countries along the southern flank – in the past five years and caused divisions over who is responsible for what. Facing domestic constituencies, leaders have dithered over the policy as the numbers have surged. In 2014, more than 276,000 migrants illegally entered the EU, the majority by sea, in a 155 percent increase over 2013.

In the wake of the most recent tragedy, the EU announced an expansion of Triton, both in terms of money and the area it will patrol. It is also to resume more of a rescue mission – like its Italian predecessor Mare Nostrum – instead of focusing narrowly on border patrol, despite arguments that rescue inspires migrants to take more risks.

It is still smaller than Mare Nostrum and the argument that it will attract migrants (i.e. serve as a "pull factor") still exists. But the pace of deaths this year has quieted that criticism.

“The pull factor [argument] is out the window…. Triton is doing nothing compared to Mare Nostrum, and the number of people is increasing,” says Alessio Patalano, a professor in the department of war studies at King's College London. “If the decision is to save lives at sea, you need to employ the necessary resources.”

The push factor

But a ten-point plan unveiled at a meeting in Luxembourg Monday, to be discussed further at an EU leaders summit Thursday, also places more responsibilities on Europe to tackle the problem at its source. That has raised questions about how seriously Europe must address the “push factor” – the spur to migrate – at origin countries.

The new plan contemplates a European mission to disrupt people smuggling networks, considers a tougher position for immigration cases, and encourages burden-sharing across the 28-member bloc. The tragedy has even spawned a deeper discussions about Europe’s obligations to stabilize Libya, where lawlessness has made it rife for human smuggling networks and where officials estimate that up to one million nationals are waiting to board rickety boats in their goal to reach European shores.

The EU also announced a “systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers,” inspired by the bloc’s Somali operations. It will focus on intelligence to dismantle smuggling networks and work more closely with neighboring countries surrounding Libya to clamp down on the networks.

Some express doubts about how effective dismantling people smuggling can be – both because disrupting trade can impact supply and demand and cause prices to spike and because of the current political chaos of Libya.

“It’s very difficult to do unless you do it with the local government,” says Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs in the Brussels office of the Spanish think tank FRIDE. “The EU was trying to help the Libyan government improve its border management. But because it collapsed and essentially we now have two governments you had to move out.”

'Stop the boats'?

Not all of what Europe is doing will be a boon for the migrants attempting to reach European shores. It is also considering a new return program for the rapid return of “irregular migrants.” Australia has taken a controversial hardline approach to its refugee crisis, returning back boats and asylum seekers who employ smugglers. Prime Minister Tony Abbott called on Europe to follow suit as a dissuasion tactic.

“The only way you can stop the deaths is to stop the people smuggling trade. The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats,” he said from Australia.

What many say is ultimately the only true long-term solution to the problems is helping to stabilize the economies and political strife in the origin countries. Any kind of consensus is far off but it’s increasingly an issue that cannot be overlooked, experts say.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi over the weekend offered to lead a UN-backed mission in Libya if diplomatic efforts fail. “No solution to the migrant crisis can be found without a stabilization in Libya,” Renzi told reporters Sunday. He ruled out immediate intervention that would require boots on the ground.

The migration question is separate from the greater stakes in the deterioration of Libya. But Mr. Keohane says the accident has underlined the obligations that Europe faces in stabilizing Libya, which is much closer geographically to Europe than Syria. 

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