Europe’s responsibility toward migrants
The history of migration correlates closely with the history of humankind. Throughout history, humans have left their homes in search of a new one for social, political and economic reasons or as a result of conflicts, natural disasters and humanitarian catastrophes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people today worldwide has exceeded 50 million. The exact number is undoubtedly higher and growing each day.
Particularly, the unceasing turmoil in the Middle East and Africa alongside harsh economic, political and social conditions has worsened the situation in recent years in Europe’s neighborhood. The Syrian civil war alone has displaced 7.6 million people inside Syria and driven another 3.9 million people out of the country.
The political instability and general lawlessness in the entire region have been providing a fruitful environment for human trafficking. Thus, the Mediterranean has become a central route for illegal immigration toward Europe, which has recently turned the sea into a deadly passage.
The latest humanitarian crisis in which 900 people drowned after a boat capsized off the Libyan coast on April 20 finally alerted the European public to the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean. The deadliest incident ever, it has sparked a debate over the responsibility of the European Union and its asylum policy, known as the Dublin system. Admittedly, the system is designed to make it almost impossible for migrants and asylum seekers to reach Europe legally. As a result, they have been forced to use illegal means to penetrate “Fortress Europe,” hence the tragedy in the Mediterranean.
Apart from its humanitarian problems, the Dublin system has also fuelled a debate within the EU over burden-sharing between northern and southern member states. Despite the spirit of the union, the system lays all the responsibility on the member state where an asylum seeker arrives first. Thus, members like Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain are shouldering most of the burden. For example, Italy’s patrol and rescue mission, unfortunately named Mare Nostrum and costing around 12 million dollars a month, was stopped at the end of 2014 due to financial constraints. As most of the member states refused to support the mission, Italy downsized its mission to the smaller Operation Triton to patrol and perform rescues within 30 miles of the Italian coast for around 3.6 million dollars a month under the EU border agency Frontex. This disinterested approach from northern members and divergences within the EU has prevented the construction of a common policy for years.
In the wake of the aforementioned incident, EU leaders gathered for an emergency summit on migration on April 23. A 10-point action plan, proposed by the European Commission on April 20 to address the humanitarian crisis, formed the basis of the summit. At the end, the leaders agreed to take action ranging from increasing funding to maritime operations to fighting against smugglers and sharing the burden of refugees by developing an EU-wide program to increasing dialogue with key third countries to stop migration at the source.
Obviously, these are ephemeral measures and not designed to affect a radical change in the current approach of the EU regarding asylum seekers and migrants; they will hopefully assist in preventing the death toll from rising. Particularly, the idea of tripling funding for EU maritime operations, including rescue missions in the Mediterranean, might bring about such an outcome. But the real results can only be achieved with a total overhaul of the strict EU policy on and the negative attitude toward asylum seekers and migrants.