Seeking Refuge: What's behind Europe's immigration crisis?

'Boat season' is in full swing in the Mediterranean, as migrants brave perilous conditions for a better life in Europe. But the crossing is deadlier than ever – already 1,800-plus migrants have died.

Antonio Parrinello/Reuters
A migrant walks after disembarking from Coast Guard vessel Peluso in the Sicilian harbor of Augusta, Italy, Wednesday. More than 400 migrants, including women and children, were taken ashore at the Sicilian town, as the relentless wave of people crossing the Mediterranean from Africa in search of a better life in Europe continued.

It's just the beginning of “boat season,” when warm weather and calmer seas lure tens of thousands of asylum seekers across the Mediterranean to Europe. Yet already, 1,850 people have died – and the world has registered one of the deadliest maritime accidents in modern history, with 800 individuals perishing in April after their fishing vessel capsized between Libya and Italy. 

The deadly start to the new season has spurred the European Union to action. But its plans are already being undermined by infighting over which member state is obligated to do what. In the meantime, the exodus from sub-Saharan Africa and the war-torn Middle East is expected to grow.

Q: Is this a new problem?

No, disparities in wealth, peace, and rule of law have always driven migration in the Mediterranean, just as they do along the US-Mexican border. What is different this year is the rate of deaths.

The number of those arriving to Europe by sea this year stood at 46,500, at the end of May, compared to 41,243 in the same time period last year, according to United Nations figures. That is an increase of 12 percent.

But the number of those who have died is up 20-fold. Federico Soda from the International Organization for Migration says that the 1,800-odd deaths in the first four months of this year compares to 96 in the same time period last year. Over all of last year, 3,500 people died trying to make the passage, making 2014 the deadliest year on record. This year is on pace to exceed that if trends hold.

Q: Why is the crossing so deadly now?

Mostly because of Libya. Internal conflict there has led to lawlessness that  in turn has given people smugglers the perfect place to grow their trade with near impunity.

And while the business of trafficking has always been heartless, it is now even more so. Smugglers see a growing demand for their services, in part driven by wars in Syria and Iraq, and by refugees' globalization-fueled expectations of a better life in Europe. So the smugglers pack their vessels, like the one that capsized on April 19, and abandon them when they might get caught.

Europe comes in for blame, too. Italy scaled down its rescue response, called Mare Nostrum, at the end of last year amid concern that the expensive operation actually encouraged refugees to brave the Mediterranean. The EU filled the gap with its own mission, but it operates with a third of the budget and a mandate to patrol, rather than rescue. Demand did not go down, though, while risk shot up.

Q: What is Europe doing to respond?

More than it ever has – but still not enough. The April tragedy spurred the EU to agree to target the smugglers by destroying their boats and their trade. The EU also greatly increased the Mediterranean naval mission and budget. But many refugee rights advocates say this will not deter demand and Europe must focus on integration. That is the crux of the problem today.

The EU has drawn up two plans to accommodate refugees. One of them would resettle about 20,000 refugees who are currently outside the EU. That process already exists, and is less controversial, especially because it is voluntary. The more controversial one is a so-called “quota system”: a relocation plan that involves 40,000 nationals from Syria or Eritrea who have been in Greece or Italy since April 15, and would be distributed across Europe in proportions determined by such factors as population and economic growth.

Many countries, like Spain, France, and those on the eastern flank of the EU, have already balked. Britain says it won’t even participate, taking advantage of an opt-out it holds under EU law.

Q: Why can’t Europe find consensus?

One word: NIMBYism. The crisis plays out tragically on the doorstep of Italy and Greece, where islands are overrun and the countries are at the front lines of fatal accidents. They complain that the rest of Europe needs to do more to shoulder the immediate burden.

But it is northern countries where most asylum seekers end up. And the number of asylum applicants in the EU is up dramatically.

According to Europe’s statistical arm Eurostat, applicants overall were up by 44 percent in 2014, with the growth of Syria rising most dramatically, from 50,000 cases in 2013 to 123,000 last year. Germany received by far the most, with 32 percent of all applications, followed by Sweden with 13 percent (though as a percentage of the population Sweden actually takes in the most refugees). And the European Asylum Support office told reporters recently that of the 660,000 asylum applicants made in Europe last year, 220,000 came via the Mediterranean. That means that two-thirds entered elsewhere, mostly from Eastern Europe. Ukraine is the main driver of those asylum cases, and many of those asylees end up in Germany and Sweden.

As a result, the northern countries see the quota system as necessary to distribute refugees into manageable numbers. But central and eastern Europeans have condemned the quota system, largely because refugees aren't coming to their countries, and thus they don’t see it as their problem.

Q: Is Europe acting humanely?

Europe prides itself on its commitment to human rights. But a quick glance of “reader comments” on newspapers across the region reveals a deep public distrust of Europe’s path. Commenters talk about invasions of non-Christians who are fundamentally changing the cultural face of the Continent. 

That sentiment is visible in politics, too. Governments are under pressure from a growing anti-immigrant sentiment that populist parties have skillfully exploited, from the UK Independence Party in Britain to the National Front in France. Strains are being felt even in countries like Germany or Sweden, which have in recent years been most open to refugees.

Perhaps what is most telling is that the EU’s consensus on a naval mission was less controversial than opening doors – an unusual outcome on a continent that generally shies away from the use of force. Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford in the UK, calls it “ironic to say the least.”

“Europe as a region is more and more anti-migration,” he says, “which means there is a premium on any action that might prevent them from coming in the first place.”

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