More than 100,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta by sea in the first half of 2014. A huge increase from the 60,000 who arrived irregularly by sea in 2013. The numbers of those who embark on this perilous journey but do not make it to Europe alive are increasing just as steadily. According to figures from UNHCR and IOM, more than 3,000 people have drowned or been reported lost at sea this year while trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, and over 22,000 people have died in the same way since 2000. These figures do not include the many deaths of migrants in transit along various dangerous land routes before they reach the boats. (For more statistics see these reports from Amnesty International and IOM. )
From 1-5 October 2014, the island of Lampedusa was again at the centre of the debate. The island has traditionally played an important role as a bridge between the two sides of the Mediterranean. This role was reinforced as the island hosted the Sabir festival of Mediterranean cultures, one year after 368 migrants drowned as their boat sank less than 1km from the coast of the island.
The aim of the festival was to create an open and collaborative space for the countries of the Mediterranean to address issues of migration, identity, a new idea of Mediterranean citizenship, and essentially a new concept of Mediterranean equality. Civil society organisations from Europe and neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, international NGOs, migrants, activists, residents of Lampedusa, and politicians and Members of the European Parliament came together for the conference at the airport of Lampedusa.
Besides the international meetings, there were a number of activities organised in memory of the victims of the 3 October tragedy. The mayor of Lampedusa and many of the people involved in the rescue and recovery operation of 3 October 2013 were present at the airport to meet the survivors and relatives of those who drowned, when they arrived on the island from Rome where they had a private audience with Pope Francis.
On the morning of 3 October, survivors were joined by pupils of Lampedusa high school to paint the concrete breakwater blocks at Favorola quay, and a flash mob was organised to commemorate the victims of the shipwreck.
A fleet including the patrol boats of the Port Authority, the coast guard, Guardia Finanza and the boats of the fishermen who helped the survivors, sailed out to the site of the shipwreck to place a wreath on the water. Divers from the Port Authority placed a concrete plaque on the wreck on the seabed, with the impression of the hands of the survivors and the rescuers.
In the evening, the citizens of the island, the survivors and their family members, and the volunteers and rescuers took part in a procession to the Porta d’Europa (Gate of Europe) a monument dedicated to the memory of all migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the activities there was much sadness and anger. As the survivors relived the events of a year ago and the relatives grieved for those lost at sea, the residents of the island grieved with them.
The island’s close proximity to North Africa (113km to Tunisia) has meant that boats packed with migrants and refugees have been arriving at the island for years already. Both these arrivals and the loss of lives on the way affect both the lives and livelihoods of everyone on the island. Fishermen going about their work have become accidental heroes, rescuing migrants stranded or drowning at sea. Lampedusa’s tourism industry has been damaged by the tragedies in the waters surrounding the island, and by scandals surrounding the conditions and treatment of arrivals in the migrant reception centre on the island.
The Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) search and rescue operation set up by Italy has rescued more than 100,000 migrants and refugees since it’s inception in December 2013. The Italian government has repeatedly asked the EU to take responsibility for the operation those calls have been largely ignored as other EU member states are reluctant to get involved or chip in financially when the migrants are not yet at their own doorsteps. The operation is currently being phased out and will soon end altogether. A joint border security operation of EU member states, Frontex Plus (Triton), started last week. The Frontex Plus operation is not a replacement for Mare Nostrum. The scope and geographical extension of Frontex Plus is very limited compared to Mare Nostrum as the mandate of Frontex is border control – not search and rescue. A distinction which should not be underestimated.
Although there has been much media attention given to the numbers of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean since the 3 October tragedy, the longer-term trends behind the numbers are much more complex, and worrying, than the fleeting headlines convey.
Conflict and violence are causing huge numbers of people to flee their homes and homelands in search of safety and protection. Poor governance and economic prospects in countries of origin are leading large numbers of people to migrate in search of opportunities and better lives. Ageing populations in Europe are creating a demand for young, fit workers while overpopulation in other regions is pushing people abroad to look for opportunities. Lack of legal routes to Europe is sending people from all of these groups into the hands of smugglers and directing them towards the boats.
The challenges arising from this migration towards Europe are also complex and diverse, Anti-migrant populism and migration myths abound. The protection of the human rights of migrants is pitted against the protection of the economic rights of European citizens. Questions of responsibility around reception and ‘burden-sharing’ make us question our own identity as European member states and as a unified Europe. Questions around search and rescue make us question our humanity.
When Pope Francis visited Lampedusa in 2013 he called for a “reawakening of conscience” and an end to the “globalisation of indifference”. Reducing migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea is not only a matter of conscience but of facing reality.
The number of displaced people in the world may be at a historic high, but migration is not a temporary phenomena. People will continue to move around the globe in search of a safe and dignified existence.
In addressing the root causes of migration we also need to look further than migration itself. Our current economic model is increasing global inequality. As corporations are allowed to plunder the resources of developing countries, their populations are driven further into poverty under the guise of “free trade” and “partnership agreements”. Allowing the economic interests of an elite few (on both sides of the equation) to dominate only serves to create a situation where gaps in equality are widened and the poor are forced to fight against the poor. This in turn only increases migration to Europe and the global north. The environmental costs of this current model are also devastating and are being felt across the globe, but most acutely by those on the wrong end of the global north-south divide of wealth and poverty. The African Union and the EU have a responsibility to work together with countries of origin and transit to enforce human rights, and promote democracy and inclusive development, making migration a choice rather than a necessity.
Border control alone cannot stem irregular migration, just as stopping search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean will not take away the hope of each potential boat migrant that their boat will be one of the ones to make it to Europe. Only by creating safe and legal channels for migration can we reduce demand for the “services” of smugglers and traffickers and keep potential migrants out of the hands of criminals. Legal channels of migration would allow potential migrants to respond to the needs of the EU labour market, to stamp out unscrupulous recruitment and employment practices and to ensure the protection of workers rights. This regulated ‘openness’ would enable migrants to come into their own as transnational actors of economic and social development, contributing to both their countries of origin and destination. Establishing humanitarian corridors would allow asylum seekers to safely reach countries where they can seek protection.
Perhaps it is time for a change of perspective in the EU whereby we start to see Lampedusa as the centre of the Mediterranean rather than the frontier of Europe. As a place that has served as a meeting point for a myriad of cultures throughout the years, and a bridge across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa has a lot to teach us, and if we are serious about preventing more loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea we need to listen carefully.
In a Europe built on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, shouldn’t we be throwing lifebuoys instead of wreaths to those who come in search of the same thing?