Extensive rescue operations of refugees en route to Spain through the Mediterranean Sea occurred over the weekend of May 26th and 27th. The migrants, seeking asylum within the European Union, originated from various territories in Northern or Sub-Saharan Africa, but all departed on the perilous journey from Morocco. The Spanish Maritime Safety and Rescue Society (SASEMAR) has stated on Twitter that a total of 536 people were extracted from 17 watercrafts over the two-day period. The organization provided updates of further search and rescue operations on the water as more civilian attempted to travel to Spain in the following days. In addition, multiple images were published, depicting migrants on the rescue ships huddled under blankets to protect them from the harsh conditions at sea.
Fabrice Leggeri, Executive Director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), said in an earlier May conference that “challenges in one country or region [are] having a direct and very immediate effect elsewhere.” UNHCR Spain spokeswoman María Jesús Vega reacted to the rescue efforts, stating that organizations such as Frontex and SASEMAR are being “overwhelmed,” and so there needs to be “proper infrastructure for welcoming, registering and identifying” the refugees from Africa. However, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s views oppose Vega’s; he believes that action needs to be taken in North Africa by European authorities to directly prevent others from attempting the journey.
Rescuing migrants from maritime situations is a top priority, as they are at a high risk of drowning on boats which are over-packed and in poor condition. This urgency was displayed as multiple vessels sank after their passengers were saved by Spanish authorities, some even died at sea in the following days. Kurz’s suggested solution to this matter only addresses it in a rudimentary manner, forgetting to consider the root causes of the problem. While his plan may stop some asylum-seekers in the short-term, it would be limited to nations that would agree to have European authorities operate within its borders, simply making journeys from alternative destinations more desirable. It also fails to alleviate any of the conditions from which displaced people are attempting to escape.
This incident demonstrates the upsurge of migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe in recent years. Various geopolitical crises, along with a lack of economic opportunities across Africa and the Middle East, have been the major causes of the displacement of millions of civilians. The International Organization for Migration released statistics showing that in 2017 almost 21 500 refugees arrived in Spain after crossing the Mediterranean Sea with 223 people dying on the way. According to UNHCR, so far in 2018 over 10 000 individuals have made the same journey. Multiple summits between European and African leaders have occurred over the years in attempts to address the core issues causing this migration. These summits implemented several protections for asylum-seekers coming into Europe and established the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa designed to help stabilize the division and reduce displacement.
While the difficulties and debates surrounding this subject are nuanced and at times precarious, the immediate actions of SASEMAR must be applauded, as large refugee crossings can easily turn into tragedies. Since this is an ongoing issue, it would be appropriate for the European Union to continue holding summits with African and Middle Eastern leaders. In doing so, they can consolidate what has already been achieved and use that as a platform to further reduce the need for mass migration from these regions.