Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton
Managing illegal immigration and asylum seekers is one of the great problems threatening the unity of the European Union. Sourcing funding for border operations represents a large component of this threat — current policies do not fairly distribute the financial burden. More worrying, however, is the concomitant exposure of the Union’s unwillingness to uphold its fundamental values.
Under the Dublin Regulation, entry-point states bear unilateral responsibility for documenting migrants and housing asylum seekers. Italy and Greece carry much of this weight — their locations on the Mediterranean Sea make them easier destinations for migrants and traffickers. The rationale behind this responsibility is that it prevents countries from “seeking to offload their responsibility onto others” and stops migrants from simultaneously seeking asylum in multiple countries.
Plausible as these goals may seem, they place disproportionate pressure on entry states. Migrants’ intended destinations are usually among the more prosperous Northern states with their welcoming immigration laws and generous welfare systems — France, Germany, and Sweden topped the list of number of asylum applications received in 2013. While anyone can apply for asylum in these states, not every application is successful. To pressure border states into maintaining strong EU borders, failed applicants are returned to their point of entry. As a result, these countries must return large numbers of people to their countries of origin. Unfortunately for these states, most of the requisite funds are allocated based on the number of asylum applications received. Since periphery countries receive fewer applications than Northern countries, they receive less funding. Greece and Italy thus experience a double blow — they must deal with applicants rejected by other states while receiving less money to conduct this thankless task.
Our Sea, Your Problem
Border states face additional stress due to their humanitarian efforts to secure the safety of migrants in the Mediterranean. Those bound for Europe face a horrifying ordeal at sea. Many boats sink, either at the whim of nature or at the hands of traffickers, condemning their passengers to death, as in the case of more than 360 migrants sailing from Libya, whose boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013. In response to this tragedy, the Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, a migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean aimed at preventing further catastrophes.
Mare Nostrum protected more than 140,000 people between October 2013 and November 2014. Italian Navy units ranged across a 70,000 sq. km area, delivering support and basic medical care to refugees augmented by “information, support, legal counselling, and cultural mediation” for child and teenage migrants provided by Save the Children. Mare Nostrum represented a holistic humanitarian effort to help refugees who fell into serious trouble upon the Mediterranean.
Sadly, its operations demanded a high price — €8 million per month — almost entirely supplied by Rome. Despite doing a more than admirable job with Mare Nostrum, financial help for Italy was not forthcoming because many governments saw the protective activities of Mare Nostrum as incentivising illegal immigrants to cross the Mediterranean, driving more foreigners into Europe’s burgeoning welfare systems. A “four-fold increase in deaths” after the mission’s launch was cited as evidence of this “pull factor.” However, the extent of causation is uncertain — 2014 saw both another Israeli-Palestinian war and the highest number of deaths in Syria since the beginning of its civil war. Push factors have been very strong, stronger than any pull from the European side of the ocean. Yet EU members held their positions, easily palatable to domestic populations, and refused to fund Mare Nostrum.
Regardless of this avoidance of responsibility, the EU commitment to open internal borders requires contributions from every member for the management of the Union’s longest and most porous frontier. In the words of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, “The Mediterranean Sea is not an Italian sea. It is the heart of Europe: that is why we need a European policy for the Mediterranean.” While many Europeans may take umbrage at the suggestion of the Mediterranean being the heart of Europe, none can deny that responsible cooperation is required to maintain its health, and the safety of anyone upon its waters.
In an effort to alleviate financial and political pains, Mare Nostrum was replaced by a more limited operation, Triton, funded by the EU border agency, Frontex. Triton receives one third of its predecessor’s budget to enforce “rules governing the movement of persons across borders,” in operations up to thirty miles off the Italian coast. Human safety is relegated to a secondary concern. This presents a threat more troubling than simple fiscal responsibility. Triton’s reduced mission strikes at the core of the European Union — it hollows out the values “embedded in the EU treaties,” upon which the Union was built, values of dignity, equality and the importance of human life. In both its goals and its means, Triton falls far short of Mare Nostrum in the important tasks of border enforcement and upholding the values of the European Union.
Although Triton is still young, stories of ships abandoned by their captains, such as the Ezadeen, suggest that it has done little to assuage the “pull factor” of Mare Nostrum. Instead, Triton’s small operational area and low funding pose little risk to traffickers, encouraging them to send even more ships. Demand for those ships looks set to hold as Middle Eastern troubles show little sign of easing in the near future. These dual pressures will increase the number of boats that Triton must respond to.
What should we expect a seaman on board a Triton ship to do when (not if) he encounters one of these migrant vessels in distress? Is he duty bound to sit within his thirty-mile limit and watch people perish? In the words of Edmund Burke, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” By these “good men” doing nothing, the dual evils of immigrants’ cruel traffickers and oppressive circumstances will run their deadly course.
Inevitable Facts, Stark Choices
With the success of traffickers’ current strategies, Triton has failed its acid test — one thousand migrants were delivered to Europe in the space of a week. It clearly cannot fulfil its operational mandate of preventing people from reaching European shores. Migrants are going to reach Europe, whatever obstacles the EU places in their way — the temptation of a new life free of past horrors is simply too enticing. Given this fact, inevitable with current EU welfare policies and domestic conditions on the far shores of the Mediterranean, shouldn’t Europe commit to protecting those people who cannot protect themselves? For while the tale of the Ezadeen ended with the rescue of its passengers, other voyagers will not be so lucky.
Permitting boundless immigration is unrealistic — Europe cannot deal with that immense tide. But saving lives is not equivalent to opening borders; those who reach Europe must still gain lawful residence or face an illegal existence. Indeed, delivering migrants to shore benefits EU authorities by facilitating enforcement of border conditions. A greater humanitarian presence upon the Mediterranean would reinforce this benefit.
On a simpler level, Europeans should protect the lives of those who choose to make this perilous journey. If they reach Europe, the crime of these people is naught but gambling on the opportunity of escape from war. They hold the same right to life as anyone else. Considering the basic ideals enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the means to support these ideals, Europe’s broken promises set an awful example of hypocrisy and selfishness.
The total EU budget for 2015 is €142 billion. EU countries and institutions gave $86 billion in development assistance in 2013. Funding Mare Nostrum required €108 million annually, a drop in the budgetary ocean. Presented with these figures, the Union faces a stark choice — commit to upholding its fundamental values and setting an example around the world, or abandon these values, for fear of overspending on human lives.
Sadly, while money talks, the masses roar — mainstream parties disliked Mare Nostrum and increasingly powerful right-wing parties like France’s National Front despise any accommodation of supposedly ungrateful, welfare-scrounging immigrants. Brussels has demoted migrant safety to mere idealism. But like the refugees who hope to fulfil that most human dream, the dream of a better life, those of us who live that better life can aspire to realise another markedly human dream — assuring happiness and safety for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Alex Davies is an independent major at Cornell University, studying International Relations and Computer Science. He is a Staff Writer for The Diplomacist.