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Mediterranean migrants are desperate; Europe can’t just turn them away

On Thursday, the bodies recovered from the Mediterranean’s worst-ever migrant disaster were buried in Malta. There were only 24 coffins, although an estimated 800 people died. None of the bodies were identified; some had numbers scrawled on them referring to a DNA sample from the corpse in case a relative comes searching for their loved ones in the years ahead. The dead were honoured with a memorial service that included both Christian and Muslim prayers and was attended by the president of Malta, Italy’s interior minister and the EU’s migration commissioner.

Only 28 people survived the capsizing of that boat, which came just days after another sank off the coast of Libya, killing around 400 people. The two incidents have brought the death toll of people attempting the Mediterranean crossing to around 1,700 so far this year, 30 times more than died in the same period in 2014. Around 3,500 died in the whole of last year.

Many have attributed this drastic increase in the death toll to a shift in EU policy. From October 2013 to October 2014, the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation run by Italy aimed to keep a 24-hour watch over the Mediterranean, especially the Sicily Strait, after more than 300 migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa. In November 2014, it was replaced by Operation Triton, a much cheaper, more limited EU-led operation, based in Italian waters and patrolling only within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast. Britain was among the countries which refused to contribute to the operation, arguing that providing a search-and-rescue service to make the route safer would act as an unintentional “pull” factor and encourage more people to try to make the perilous journey to Europe.

The events of this month have shown that that argument is an immoral and inhumane fallacy. Migrants are fleeing not because they assume that rescue operations will keep them safe, but because they are desperate; they are trying to escape from violence and hardship. The numbers speak for themselves; around 35,000 are estimated to have arrived in Europe from North Africa in 2015. Libya is fast moving towards the status of a failed state, and the political crisis in the country makes it an easy point of departure for Europe. This has been exploited by human traffickers, a point that has been emphasised by politicians in Britain in an attempt to justify their position.

At an emergency summit in Brussels this week, EU leaders committed extra ships, planes and helicopters to save lives in the Mediterranean. Germany and France pledged two ships, while Britain committed three. David Cameron insisted that those rescued by British ships would not have immediate recourse to claim asylum in Britain but would be taken to the nearest safe country. Other member states also promised vessels and helicopters for use in rescue missions. It was agreed that funding for Operation Triton would triple to $9.7m a month. Leaders also said that they were discussing military action against traffickers to stem the flow of people heading for Europe.

This is undoubtedly a positive step; for years, European leaders have done little more than issue statements lamenting the loss of life, while failing to take any significant action. However, conversely, the announcement more or less ignored the humanitarian crises that are leading people to make these journeys in the first place. There is no doubt that people traffickers are cynical — they risk people’s lives for financial gain — but a focus on traffickers alone risks missing the point. After all, the migrants are not being forced to embark on such a dangerous journey, so they must be incredibly desperate to hand money over willingly to those same traffickers.

While restoring a proper rescue operation is a vital part of a much wider picture, it is also important to consider what happens to those migrants who do make it to Europe. In the face of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment across the EU’s member states, most countries wish to ignore the mounting crisis. There is a disproportionate pressure on countries in southern Europe where many refugees arrive; they face destitution, long periods of detention and deportation. Journeys within Europe to different countries are fraught with their own dangers.

The question of what happens to these migrants when they arrive must be addressed, in a sensible and humane manner, or more lives will be lost. There is no denying that it is a huge task – some 10,000 people were rescued in the space of a week – but continuing to deny the existence of these people, to lock them up, or to focus simply on sending them back to the places they fled from, is surely no longer an option. The people drowning in the Mediterranean are some of the poorest and most desperate in the world; Europe cannot continue to turn its back.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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