We cannot afford another Frontex failure

Described as ‘the worst shipwreck in years’ by the International Organisation for Migration, this latest catastrophe points towards a dramatic increase in the death toll associated with irregular migration across the central Mediterranean route in recent years.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Monday’s maritime tragedy – in which 500 asylum seekers lost their lives just 300km south of Malta – once again calls into question the European Union’s commitment to dealing with the migration issue.

Described as ‘the worst shipwreck in years’ by the International Organisation for Migration, this latest catastrophe points towards a dramatic increase in the death toll associated with irregular migration across the central Mediterranean route in recent years.

Statistics suggests that both the number of attempted crossings and associated fatalities have multiplied substantially each year since the first of several such tragedies occurred in October 2012. There were 13,000 attempted crossings that year, in which 500 people lost their lives. These figures rose to 43,000 and 600 respectively in 2013.

In 2014, the number of recorded crossings has reached 110,000, in which – according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR – over 2,500 people have drowned or gone missing. Of these fatalities, more than 2,200 have died in the last three months alone.

Even at a glance, then, it is painfully visible that we are dealing with a dramatic and unacceptable escalation in loss of life on Europe’s doorstep. And with Libya (the last point of departure for most of these tragedies) now threatening to plummet into full-scale civil war, the situation can be expected to worsen in the near future.

The scale of this problem – and more specifically, the failure of Europe to address it properly – has become a focal point for international criticism. Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the UNHCR, has urged the international community to “wake up to the scale of the crisis”. Not that we really needed a Hollywood superstar to point this out, but Jolie is nonetheless right. Faced with a humanitarian crisis of such gargantuan proportions, the reaction of the international community – in particular the European Union, which is the destination of choice for the victims – has been disappointingly mute.

Past attempts to control Europe’s borders included the Frontex operation, launched in 2007. Initially this was supposed to be a multi-national maritime operation, but in the absence of a central legal mechanism it was forced to rely almost exclusively on the voluntary contribution of funds and assets by individual member states.

In practice this never materialised. European parliamentary rapporteur Gerard Deprez frankly admitted that “Frontex is only prepared to co-ordinate the assistance that different member states are offering… the regulation does not specify who is in charge of reminding the member states that they have to send personnel and equipment to the countries which need them.”

This is not very encouraging for a number of pressing reasons. Since 2013 – and following the abject failure of Frontex – Italy’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation has contributed to saving more than 70,000 lives in the central Mediterranean. But there are now indications that Italy, struggling with internal economic pressures of its own, may be winding down its humanitarian operation.

Last month, Italian Home Affairs Minister Angelino Anfano warned that Mare Nostrum was unsustainable, and that his government now expected the EU to step in and take over life-saving operations in the central Mediterranean.

Yet it remains debatable if the EU has managed to address the problems that led to the failure of its earlier attempts at coordinating similar life-saving operations.

A second coordinated EU response, dubbed ‘Frontex Plus’, is now understood to be in the pipeline. Yet on a recent visit to Malta, home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmström admitted that its terms of reference remain vague, and that the success of this operation still depends on the purely voluntary cooperation of other member states: cooperation which has not, to date, been forthcoming.

“It is not clear how Frontex plus, or whatever it will be called, is going to be framed as it is still being drafted and tasks and responsibilities have yet to be spelt out. It however will be a bigger operation than Frontex and different from Mare Nostrum,” Malmström told reporters.

She also said that the EU does not have the funds or assets to mount an operation of similar size and scope.

This last statement alone is extraordinary, given that the EU comprises 28 member states with a budget running into hundreds of billions of euros, and is the single richest common market in the world. How can a single country like Italy, in the grips of an economic crisis, manage to do what seems to be beyond the collective capabilities of the EU as a whole?

Clearly the answer cannot be down to a lack of resources – collectively, the EU has far more resources than any one of its own member states. As Malmström herself admitted, the answer can be put down to a lack of willpower and solidarity among member states.

From this perspective, unless there is a decisive change to the rules of engagement of Frontex Plus – a change which will ensure that assets, personnel and funding are provided on a mandatory rather than voluntary basis – the likelihood is that Frontex Plus will be as much of a failure as the original operation.

With a death-toll already topping 3,600 in the past three years, this would be a failure we simply cannot afford.