The physical gulf between Africa and Europe is not nearly as great as the discrepancies in wealth and development might suggest. At their closest the two continents are just 14 kilometres apart, and, on a clear day, it’s possible to see the shimmering lights of Gibraltar from Morocco’s northern tip – a glowing beacon of prosperity that draws would-be refugees and immigrants like moths to a flame.
Most of Europe, however, is out of sight from North Africa’s long coastline. That does not diminish its appeal. In 2014, at least 130 000 people have attempted the perilous sea crossing.
It’s not just Africans making the journey, although they form the bulk – in particular Eritreans and Libyans fleeing persecution and violence. There are also tens of thousands of Syrians, hoping to reach the end of a long and arduous journey from civil war to safety.
All are part of the greatest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. According to the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency (also known as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR), the total number of forcibly displaced people in the world has exceeded 50 million for the first time in nearly 60 years.
More than 2 500 immigrants have already drowned or gone missing in this year alone
They’re all looking for a better life, and who can blame them? Usually, refugees are escaping from situations that few in the developed world can relate to: torture, rape, civil war, persecution, oppressive authoritarian regimes and absolute poverty. These are not chancers looking to abuse Europe’s benefit system.
And the sacrifices they make along the way are staggering. Many hand over their entire life savings to smuggling gangs, with no guarantees of success; most abandon their friends, families and livelihoods. All must risk their lives on over-crowded, rickety boats that sink with alarming regularity.
Over the last year, at least one aspect of this dire situation has improved: the boats are sinking less regularly, thanks to Operation Mare Nostrum, a comprehensive search-and-rescue mission mounted by the European Union (EU). This was implemented in the wake of last year’s Lampedusa tragedy, in which about 365 migrants died when their boat overturned. It was a headline-grabbing disaster that forced Europe into action. These efforts have been effective; authorities estimate that as many as 70 000 people have subsequently been saved. Despite this, the sea crossing remains perilous – more than 2 500 have already drowned or gone missing in this year alone.
But the action lasted only for a year. Mare Nostrum’s mandate expired in October 2014, and will not be extended. Italy – the main destination for refugees, thanks to its proximity to Libya – says it can’t afford to maintain the operation on its own, and other governments are not stepping up to help. Britain, for example, has said it won’t contribute to any future operations and described Mare Nostrum as a ‘pull factor’ that encourages more refugees to enter Europe – a claim dismissed by the British Refugee Council, a local non-governmental organisation.
It’s like saying seatbelts encourage dangerous driving, so don’t wear seatbelts
‘It’s like saying seatbelts encourage dangerous driving, so don’t wear seatbelts,’ said communications officer, Rebecca Moore. ‘If you follow it through to its logical conclusion, the British government is saying let’s let people drown so that people don’t come here in the future.’ In place of Mare Nostrum, the EU is mounting Operation Triton – a vastly scaled-down effort that focuses on border protection rather than search and rescue.
Effectively, Europe is leaving refugees to sink or swim. It is battening down the hatches and pulling up the drawbridge of Fortress Europe, regardless of the human cost. ‘What a grotesque betrayal of the founding principles of the EU, an organisation built on the promise of peace, prosperity and asylum for the desperate. What an indictment of timid politicians,’ wrote Britain’s Guardian newspaper in an editorial.
Legally, however, Europe is within its rights to let refugees drown in international waters. The treatment of refugees is governed by the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which most European states are signatories. This obligates states to provide a safe haven for people fleeing from danger: states can’t send refugees back into danger, must uphold their basic human rights and must assist with the official refugee determination process.
Surely it should be legally, as well as morally wrong to leave people to drown?
But the convention only comes into force when refugees actually reach a country’s sovereign territory. What happens before then is someone else’s problem – or no one else’s, as the case may be.
And even when refugees do reach Europe, responsibility is not spread among EU member states. The Dublin II Regulation establishes the principle that if a refugee enters a member state illegally, then that member state – and that member state alone – is responsible for processing and caring for the refugee.
This puts a huge burden on countries like Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, which are the first ports of entry for most refugees crossing the Mediterranean (even if these countries are not their intended end destinations). It also allows other European countries to avoid any kind of collective responsibility.
That’s why organisations like Amnesty International are campaigning to reform the Dublin Regulation, arguing that it places ‘unfair strain on countries involved in the rescue operations.’ But perhaps the campaign should include the Refugee Convention too. Surely states and regional bodies that have the capacity to save tens of thousands of lives – as Operation Mare Nostrum did – should have a legal obligation to do so? Surely it should be legally as well as morally wrong to leave people to drown just outside your own territorial waters?
Politics, however, get in the way of common sense. Immigration in general is a fraught subject in Europe, and right-wing parties across the continent play on public xenophobia to push their agenda. Most analysts conclude that Britain’s refusal to support search-and-rescue missions for refugees was prompted by the government’s fear of losing more ground to the United Kingdom Independence Party, which campaigns on an anti-Europe, anti-immigration platform. That’s why the ruling Conservative Party has taken such a hard line on refugees – for better or worse (usually worse), domestic political considerations almost always trump international obligations, regardless of the death toll in international waters.
Simon Allison, ISS Consultant