It is not a new phenomenon for migrants to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to enter Europe in the hope of a new and more prosperous life. However, in the last year or so the danger of these crossings has developed into a humanitarian crisis. With more than 1,800 deaths this year (20 times the amount in 2014), EU ministers are struggling to devise a viable solution to the problem. In upcoming talks they are set to discuss quotas on distributing the thousands of migrants who survive the journey across Europe (The Independent – Mediterranean migrant crisis: EU leaders to discuss migrant quota). The fact that the UK has already announced it will not participate in the quotas has caused outrage on the global stage.
There is a clear argument in favour of establishing mandatory quotas. The majority of migrants are entering Italy, Greece and Maltese: fair distribution across Europe is crucial to relieve the burden on these countries, especially considering their own economic woes. Distribution is to be done according to a distribution key: this will take into account population; GDP; unemployment and the number of refugees already taken in, which will help achieve this relief. Nonetheless, Theresa May argues that the plans will just encourage more migrants to risk death and make the journey across the Mediterranean (The Guardian). However, history suggests this argument is groundless – Italy scaled back its rescue efforts last year upon the same basis (as well as due to the inability of other EU countries to contribute to the high costs of running the operation). The increase in deaths since this scaling back demonstrates that rescue schemes do nothing to encourage migrants. The government’s opposition to quotas may instead be grounded in the fact that they are increasingly under national pressure over immigration levels, so avoiding these quotas may well be in their interest to avoid a backlash back home. Yet public concern over immigration cannot dictate foreign policy when there are lives at stake. Shying away from their global responsibilities could damage the standing of the UK on the international stage. The UK’s approach also risks exacerbating the unfairness that the burdened countries feel, and could create further cracks in the EU solidarity that is desperately required to resolve this issue.
Although establishing quotas may address the immediate issue of what to do with migrants flooding Europe, it offers no long-term solution to the crisis. One solution being proposed is to target the traffickers who organise these boats, with talks of destroying the boats before migrants get the chance to board (BBC News – Migrants: What can Europe hope to achieve?). This may well help make crossings more difficult, but the realities of the proposal make it far from feasible. In order to conduct such an operation, government cooperation is crucial. With instability in governments across Africa, most notably in Libya, this could prove difficult. The EU is trying to overcome this by securing UN authorisation, but with Russia holding a veto over such action and the unsteady situation in Libya that the UN is attempting to stabilise, this is looking unlikely. And even if networks are disrupted, with such high demand and the profits that gangs can make from exploiting these vulnerable people, it is likely that replacement boats or alternative routes across the Mediterranean will be found by traffickers.
Ultimately, to overcome this crisis the root causes need to be addressed. People are fleeing economic chaos, war and human rights abuses: addressing these issues will not be easy, but something needs to be done if there is any hope of truly overcoming the migrant crisis. It is telling that the departure destinations alter depending upon where there is unrest: currently, people are departing from Libya where unpatrolled shores make it easy for traffickers to operate. It is therefore in the interests of all parties to attempt to stabilise the region. A summit in Malta this autumn will see talks with African nations to discuss the causes of this migration. This may be a good start in helping the region overcome its difficulties, but with human lives at stake less talking and more action is urgently needed. For now, ministers have agreed to increase spending on the EU replacement for Italy’s rescue efforts, which will hopefully help reduce the number of deaths. It currently has a budget of just 2.9 million euros per month, compared to Italy’s previous 9 million euros a month operation (The Guardian – Europe’s worsening migrant crisis). Even with the proposed tripling in funding, it will still be short of what it was. Combined with the reduced geographical scope of the EU’s operation, it is still grossly inadequate. And again, it is just a short term solution to stem the horrific deaths that have brought the global spotlight on this crisis.
The first step could be working with African governments to set up camps so that the EU can process applications on the other side of the Mediterranean. This will mean that migrants do not need to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean for a hope of building a new life in Europe. It will also help overcome another problem at the centre of this crisis: distinguishing economic migrants from those who are truly fleeing persecution (the latter being those who the EU must protect). Setting up these camps poses problems of its own, but if stability is to be brought to Africa, this could be the first stage of cooperation between the EU and African nations, which could help lay the foundations for stronger cooperation in the future to address the bigger causes of migration. And if it means fewer boats set sail from Africa’s shores and therefore fewer deaths occur, that can only be a positive thing.
Naturally it will take time to stabilise the governments in Africa. But during that process Europe cannot turn its backs on the migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. When human lives are at stake, the priority should be to save them; the economics can be sorted out later. So having these quotas is the first stage in the long process of overcoming this migrant crisis. But things need to be done before people make the journey – setting up camps will allow Europe time to work towards addressing the root causes without more deaths. But for now, quotas must be non-negotiable and the UK must take responsibility for its share. The cost for not doing so is a lot higher than the UK’s economic and immigration concerns.
Story by Matthew Rusk
This story does not represent the views of Fresh Start UK, purely the view of the author. What do you think should be done about the humanitarian crisis? Get in touch with us and share your views.