The Drowning Migrants

For decades Europe has been facing an issue of illegal migration. On April 19th, a ship smuggling 800 or so refugees sank in the Mediterranean Sea with only 27 victims (and the captain who seems to be held accountable) surviving the accident. Once again Europe has been made painfully aware of it not having been able to solve a problem that refuses to go away by itself.

People have been drowning into the Mediterranean for years; each time an accident happens we have likes of Matteo Renzi to remind us how necessary it is for EU to act, while little is, in fact, being done. Even David Cameron spoke for action but was also being hushed by May and Hammond (no, not the guys from Top Gear but the home and foreign secretaries Theresa May and Philipp Hammond). They claim, like they did back in 2013 during the withdrawal of Mare Nostrum, that active search-and-rescue missions might encourage the smuggling in the Mediterranean and more Africans would then be tempted to risk their lives for a chance of escaping their current living conditions.

While many people believe that these poor migrants desperately require our help, there are others who do not hold Europe responsible for the people dying on its borders; after all, people who are trying to migrate into Europe by force are criminals for attempting an illegal entry. They can only blame themselves or their countries for the unrest and the unbearable conditions… right?

By taking a brief look at the African history it becomes evident that Europe has been playing a crucial role in its politics. It began with the age of colonialism and Europe’s ruthless exploitation of Africa’s natural resources. In the process, countries were established where they did not exist and tribes with different cultures and religions were united into one ambiguous “people”. Understandably many of these tribes didn’t, and some still don’t, get along with each other resulting in civil wars and general unrest in many regions of Africa.

Of course, Europe and other western countries have attempted to fix the chaos they left behind by sending aid, equipment and even weaponry in order to protect the lives of those being oppressed by dictators who self-righteously were willing to fill the shoes we left behind. The foreign intervening of the 90s exacerbated the situation when the US and the UK replaced the tyrannical dictatorships with weak democratic leaders who were then left ruling the bellicose inhabitants of the country. This short-sighted policy only created more calamities and culminated in War on Terror.

Admittedly, not all European countries have been substantially involved with Africa, which is probably one of the reasons why some of them hesitate to act. However, many of the welfare states existing within EU, including Sweden, depend heavily upon immigrants who are seen as potential taxpayers. The low birth rates have raised questions on the countries capability to provide their aging citizens with the services they’ve helped funding for the previous generations. Consequently, immigrants are often seen as a solution to the problem even if they may extensively rely on the social services in the early stages of their immigration.

With that in mind migration without proper documents isn’t easy. Often you are not considered eligible if you’re not seeking asylum in person and to do so one must be within the country in which one seeks asylum. Taking a plane to Europe does not come in question; if the airline suspects you may not have all the necessary documents, they won’t even allow you on the flight. However, some migrants buy a flight ticket to Turkey from where they attempt travelling to EU by land or by boat. Turkey on its part has been diligently controlling the border for illegal migrants due to its agreement with EU.

Finally the immigrants turn to the smugglers as last resort. Not only is it more dangerous to be smuggled over the Mediterranean but also it’s thrice as expensive. Usually the migrants travel as far as they possibly can with their savings and stop to earn more money in order to progress. Unsurprisingly, the journey may last for years. Mostly the migrants aren’t able to get the sum together before embarking on a sea voyage, and the smugglers usually trust their clients to pay the rest once they’ve began earning in Europe. That is, of course, assuming that the “smugglers” aren’t actually human traffickers planning on exploiting the migrants.

If the migrants succeed in reaching Italy, Greece or Malta (which are their most common destinations), they are expected to seek asylum immediately after which begins the assessment of whether they indeed qualify. Economic refugees are unfortunately not eligible. If they manage to come to Europe undetected, the migrants who know they wouldn’t be given the refugee status usually spread across Europe as illegal immigrants.

Now the EU summit has decided that they will be offering approx. 5,000 resettlement places for the illegal immigrants coming in this year (2015), for the bordering countries are already dealing with overwhelming numbers of refugees. The 5,000 seems like a fairly arbitrary number because usually the EU member states assess the asylum seeker’s refugee status individually, which means that the number of applications the country is receiving shouldn’t influence the chances of resettlement. Additionally, other permits can be given to asylum seekers if they don’t pass as refugees. It seems the 5,000 will serve as supplementary resettlement refugee places. These differ from the usual refugee places so that the asylum seeker has been given the refugee status outside of the EU member state, where he will be located in. While it perhaps is good that 5,000 migrants will be resettled, this number is still a small fraction of the number risking their lives in their attempts to reach Europe.

But what could we be doing instead? If EU really wished for the migrants to cross the sea safely, it would probably be better if they let people seek asylum on their own continent. This could be achieved by placing several immigration service stations on the African coast. While it would definitely be a challenge to have these stations under control, it would decrease the number of drowning incidents and would thus reduce the burden of Frontex (the European border management program) and the bordering countries as the refugees would be settled evenly across Europe. The problem is, however, that there would be thousands of applications each of which would take about 6 months to process. During the processing time EU would probably be unable to guarantee the safety of applicants, especially as they are outside of their dominions.

Or perhaps, the western countries should take the Australian “stop the boats”-policy and send all the illegal migrants back to where they came from. Some of these migrants get persecuted once they’re back making their claims for right of asylum true. By refusing to help, there is a risk of violating international laws that EU has agreed to. If EU was found guilty of violating these laws, it would have negative consequences on their foreign politics.

While the issue is far from being solved, Europe’s compromise seems like the only reasonable option at the moment. If Europe opened its borders, we’d end up with a catastrophe; close the borders and Europe would have a hard time justifying its actions. But if we get real here, we are talking about whether or not it’s right to allow people to drown as they’re trying to reach us for help. We do not need to ponder if rescue missions create a pull factor because we already know for a fact that running a risk of dying isn’t stopping people from attempting the crossing. Europe is the pull factor.

Recommended reading:

The Global Initiative: Smuggled Futures: The dangerous path of the migrant from Africa to Europe


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