Hundreds of refugees dead in the Mediterranean and still Europe won’t act

The bodies of the latest victims arrive in Italy. EPA

At least 300 people are thought to have died in the Mediterranean as yet another group of migrants attempted the dangerous crossing to Europe. This latest incident shows that Europe has still not worked out how to identify when a migrant is a refugee or how to help them. It also exposes serious double standards about economic migration.

This is the first major incident since the Italian government ended its Mare Nostrum operation, through which it rescued migrants in trouble in the Mediterranean sea and pursued the traffickers that had led them there. Mare Nostrum was replaced with a European-funded project called Triton but that is significantly smaller in scale. And now we are seeing the results of these decisions.

According to the UN’s refugee agency, at least a quarter of the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean are known to be Syrians fleeing a humanitarian disaster which has left millions displaced in the region of origin. Having escaped the insecurity of civil war, they are forced to embark on this dangerous route in order to exercise a fundamental right to asylum. The principle of surrogacy whereby states assume responsibility for protection by offering sanctuary when a particular state has failed its citizens, is at the route of international humanitarian law. This principle has effectively been abandoned as states adopt various ways to deter irregular migrants from arriving on their shores. There are virtually no legal avenues which enable those fleeing persecution to enter Europe as refugees.

While some may be described as economic migrants, their individual stories are lumped together. In reality, many are fleeing serious harm in countries of internal conflict, such as Mali, or countries where human rights are routinely denied, such as Eritrea.

And even those who have not experienced such harm may still be looking to improve their economic security – a right which is taken for granted within the European Union. They may be classifiable as economic migrants but that does not negate the risks they face back home.

Some of the migrants were rescued. EPA

And while the European Union has limited power to change immigration rules, the approaches taken by individual European countries are riddled with double standards and inconsistencies. In the UK, African health workers are actively recruited to fill gaps in the UK labour market, with disastrous consequences for their own healthcare systems while many others are turned away at the border.

At the same time, undocumented migrants are recruited by unscrupulous employers looking to skirt around domestic labour laws. So not only are they vulnerable to abuse by smugglers and traffickers, they continue to experience abuse once they reach their destination.

Time to choose

Ultimately we need to decide if we want a world that respects human rights, equality of opportunity and tolerance. If we do, we need to offer more support to the countries migrants are trying to leave and make sure resettlement programmes properly identify and protect those most in need.

If we don’t choose to accept these values we should understand that this will generate increasing division and global inequality, which will inevitably increase public insecurity in the developed world.

Either way, these latest deaths in the Mediterranean are a tragic expression of human need. Restricting routes for legal migration will only add to the death toll as people seek out more dangerous routes to avoid detection. Meanwhile smugglers and traffickers continue to prosper.

In the light of this tragedy, the decision to end the Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean seems both flawed and short-sighted. The Italian authorities report that at least 300 smugglers were arrested during the year-long operation and 150,000 migrants were rescued. Abandoning this mission for fear of encouraging illegal migration has undoubtedly contributed to more deaths and has done nothing to address a growing smuggling industry which is thriving on desperation.

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