Europe’s Boat People: What Should We Do?

April 24, 2015, 12:55 PM UTC

David Cameron broke off election campaigning on Thursday to attend a crisis meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels.

The crisis is over the huge loss of life so far this year among migrants making the hazardous boat journey between north Africa and Italy. EU leaders agreed to bolster their search and rescue missions as a humanitarian policy to save lives. But the fundamental problem remains: tens and probably hundreds of thousands of young Africans seeking a better life in Europe are willing to take unimaginable risks for the chance to do so. What should our response be?

The event that caused the emergency meeting to be called was the capsizing of an impossibly overcrowded boat last Sunday off the coast of Sicily. Of the eight hundred migrants shoved on to the boat by people smugglers in Libya, only twenty-eight survived. But this tragedy was not a single event. UN figures report that 1,776 people have lost their lives so far this year making the crossing from north Africa to Italy. That compares with only 56 in the same period last year. The total number who drowned last year was 3,200.

EU leaders agreed to triple the funds available for search and rescue missions and to increase the availability of military resources to carry out the job. David Cameron pledged the use of the Royal Navy’s helicopter-flying flagship, HMS Bulwark, and two smaller patrol vessels.

But for Mr Cameron, and for some other EU countries, notably Germany and France, this is an abrupt change of policy. Until recently Italy, on the frontline of the problem, had run its own search and rescue policy, called Mare Nostrum, and had complained that other EU countries had an obligation to assist in what it regarded as an EU-wide problem but were failing to do so. Mr Cameron and others had argued that to increase the policing and rescue mission in the waters between Libya and Sicily would simply encourage more migrants to want to come and aid unscrupulous people smugglers intent on exploiting them in the process.

Italy abandoned its Mare Nostrum policy at the end of last year. What the EU set up to replace it is called Operation Triton. It is run on what everyone agrees is a shoestring. It is this policy that has been beefed up, though experts agree  the funds involved remain inadequate to the task.

The EU said it also wants to mount a military operation to knock out the vessels used by people smugglers, notably in Libya. The EU communiqué on Thursday night said: ‘We commit to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers.’ But EU leaders are aware that this will require UN authorisation since it will involve a military attack on Libyan sovereign territory. This will take time to negotiate, not least because of likely Russian objection. So it may not happen at all.

But even if such a military enterprise is carried out sometime over the next year, few commentators think it will deal with the problem. That’s because they believe the traffickers will just move elsewhere along the north African coast. The fundamental problem is that the pressure among would-be migrants shows no sign of lessening.

Most of those seeking to make the potentially suicidal crossing of the southern Mediterranean come from the extremely poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Before they can even get into the queues of those waiting to embark on the shores of north Africa they have to make the hazardous crossing of the Sahara. In many cases their families will have raked together what will for them have been small fortunes to pay the traffickers to get them to Europe, an investment they hope will pay off once the successful migrants start to earn money here and make remittances back home.

For many of the migrants the reason to take the risk is not so much because of the poverty in their home countries (though they are certainly poor) but because so many of the able and ambitious young feel thwarted by the nepotism and corruption that are rife at home. They first hope to escape this and start to make something of their lives in the countries of north Africa but once they find there are no opportunities there, they take the gamble of trying to reach Europe.

Some commentators argue that the only way to change this process and relieve the pressure of migration between Africa and Europe is to deal with the problem back in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not so much, they say, about giving more aid; Europe provides considerable amounts of aid, in part at least for the self-interested reason of reducing migrant pressure. Rather, it is about doing more to ensure that that aid does not disappear into the pockets of the corrupt elites. This, though, is hardly a new phenomenon and few would claim that rich donor countries have worked out how to make sure the money goes where it’s needed.

So the pressure of numbers is unlikely to decrease. The Italian interior ministry reckons 200,000 migrants a year will try to make the crossing. The problem, of course, is not just to try to minimise the casualties among those who make the trip, but what to do with those who make it across, a figure that will rise the more successful the search and rescue mission is. David Cameron made clear that those rescued should not expect asylum in Britain but should be taken to the nearest EU country, usually Italy. Germany, which takes in more asylum seekers than any other EU country, wants the others to do more, but there are no zealous volunteers.

The crisis has perhaps inevitably figured in the election campaign. On Friday, Ed Miliband said the problem of migrants being trafficked from Libya was in part because of David Cameron’s ‘failure in post-conflict planning’. He was referring to the collapse of political order in Libya following the UK-backed military action in Libya in 2011 that toppled President Gaddafi. Mr Cameron took a lead role in the action and was supported by Labour. Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister had ‘repeated the mistake’ first made in Iraq, of not following up a successful military campaign. The Prime Minister said the Labour leader’s remarks were ‘ill-judged’ but others have been far more outspoken in condemning what they regard as his inexcusable ‘political point-scoring’.

In the end, this boils down to a simple question – but with enormous ramifications. If we want to be true to the humanitarian values we claim to espouse and do everything we can to save the lives of those who risk everything to seek a better life among us, what do we do with those who manage to get here? Critics of EU policy say this more fundamental problem is not being addressed. Do you agree and how do you think it should be answered?

Let us know your views.