On Friday 10 May, over 65 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea as their boat capsized off the coast of Tunisia. In a statement, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stressed that the deaths highlighted the ongoing surge of migrant deaths at sea, amounting to nearly 900 people in 2019 alone. The incident arrived at a time of political uncertainty as ongoing conflicts in Libya threaten a new flow of migration to Europe.
The latest deaths highlight the lack of will by European leaders to effectively protect the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean since the outbreak of the crisis in 2014. Since 2014, over two million migrants have entered Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. In the same timeline, according to the International Organization for Migration, over 18,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean, though this number has diminished in recent years. As a result, many leaders in Europe have stressed that Europe no longer faces a crisis of migration and, thus, naval operations – such as Operation Sophia – have severely diminished in mandate to protect migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
The European Commission’s declaration that “Europe is no longer experiencing the migration crisis we lived in 2015” is both inaccurate and insensitive to the ongoing deaths of migrants at sea. Partially influenced by the ongoing conflict in Libya, there is a continuous mass of migrants attempting to flee their country. In 2015, the UNHCR’s Melissa Fleming reiterated the indefinite migrant struggle; “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”
The European Commission’s remarks are partly due to the emergence of far-right political groups electing anti-immigration policies throughout Europe. In countries such as Hungary, anti-immigration rhetoric has become the norm, one result of such being an erected barbed wire fence across its border to prevent immigration. U.S president Donald Trump has complimented such anti-immigration rhetoric; “He’s [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban] done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration.” The anti-immigration response by European countries has largely contributed to the number of migrant deaths at sea. Countries such as Italy in 2019 have completely closed their ports to migrants, leading to many being stranded at sea for days, if not weeks. Yet, such policies hide the true severity and continuity of the migrant crisis, as the recent deaths highlight. In response to the incident, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean stated, “This is a tragic and terrible reminder of the risks still faced by those who attempt to cross the Mediterranean.”
While migrants are continually dying trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, the severity of the crisis needs to encourage cooperation and prevent isolationism. Though many attempts to do so have failed – such as the EU’s reallocation scheme – the sense of European unity has always fostered hope. As such, the first step in protecting migrants crossing the sea and preventing migration in the first place is for the EU to formally recognise the severity of the crisis. The European Commission’s statement, albeit hesitant that migration to Europe does not warrant a crisis, still recognised that structural problems remain. To recognise these structural restraints, better cooperation should be fostered between Europe and North African countries. Understanding the root causes of migration – such as poverty, internal conflict and climate change – would not only encourage better arrangements with Libya and other states but also allow an improved response to the migrant crisis, to preserve and protect the lives of those most vulnerable.
I am part of the OWP as I share an important ethos in promoting a critical mindset in an ever-increasing complex world. The ability to understand conflict and to promote peace without resorting to violence is vital in achieving a prosperous and peaceful world. To encourage this view, I am currently a Correspondent for the OWP reporting of current events in the world.