Europe must have the courage to admit its failure

Reacting to this umpteenth tragedy, the European Commission has issued a statement calling for ‘collective courage’ to face up to the crisis.

This week, an estimated 200 people died off the coast of Libya while attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe: the largest death toll since 850 asylum seekers drowned in a single incident last April.

Reacting to this umpteenth tragedy, the European Commission has issued a statement calling for ‘collective courage’ to face up to the crisis.

“Migration is not a popular or pretty topic. It is easy to cry in front of your TV-set when witnessing these tragedies. It is harder to stand up and take responsibility. What we need now is the collective courage to follow through with concrete action on words that will otherwise ring empty...”

This is a strange declaration by the Commission, given that the latest tragedy merely confirms that its own ‘multi-pronged immigration plan’, launched with much fanfare last April, was all along destined to fail.

The International Organisation for Migration report estimates that over 2,000 migrants have so far died this year trying to reach Europe from Africa, confirming the central Mediterranean route as the deadliest route for migrants in search of a better life elsewhere.

The IOM believes that more migrants will attempt to reach European shores as the summer progresses, and that the 200,000 mark will be reached very soon.

It was specifically to address this phenomenon that the Commission launched what it described as a co-ordinated European response “combining internal and external policies, making best use of EU agencies and tools, and involving all actors: Member States, EU institutions, International Organisations, civil society, local authorities and third countries…”

As many NGOs had warned four months ago, the glaring flaw in this so-called ‘common strategy’ on migration was that it viewed the emergency purely as a military threat (implying that it could be addressed using military means), instead of the humanitarian crisis it very clearly is.

As a result, the emphasis was placed mainly on military operations aimed at dismantling the human trafficking network… primarily, by destroying their boats at sea.

The plan even envisioned the possibility of air strikes on Libya: a suggestion that sparked outrage in the provisional Libyan government that is supported by the EU.

And while there was talk of ‘saving lives at sea’, the emphasis of this plan was very clearly placed only on border control.

Even when viewed in the context of its declared aims, this strategy was clearly insufficient to begin with. Human traffickers operate in various African countries – including the countries of origin of most asylum seekers – and as such it is technically impossible to eradicate this criminal activity by only concentrating on boats that have already left the Libyan coast.

Besides, the strategy has clearly made the crossing far more dangerous than it already was: by militarising its approach to the problem, the EU has only succeeded in upping the ante for asylum seekers, making trafficking operations more covert and thus exacerbating existing difficulties in search and rescue.

All along, the EU has rejected calls by NGOs to establish safe routes for migrants, including the provision of humanitarian visas. This strategy is both cheaper and more effective than a vague commitment occasionally to sink boats. Fewer migrants would die at sea, if they were provided with legal means to seek asylum in Europe (a right supposedly conferred on all people by the European human rights convention). It would effectively rob the human trafficking network of its entire raison d’etre.

Even on a political level, the statement is incongruous. The Commission seems to be urging others to ‘stand up and shoulder responsibility’, when the responsibility in question lies at its own door.

There is much that the EU could do to alleviate the problem. EU governments could provide safe and legal ways for people in need of protection to enter Europe, rather than risking their lives at sea in their thousands.

What emerges, then, is the image of a ‘European Union’ that is very good at political exercises such as monetary union, but which has so far failed to create a humanitarian union. While pulling down the interior barriers for European citizens, goods and services, EU countries have no qualms in investing billions of euros to strengthen external borders, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths.

We have seen symptoms of this failure in other areas, too. As with the Greek debt crisis saga, Europe’s response to migration likewise exposes its lack of solidarity and respect for basic human dignity.

And even if, following April’s tragedy, efforts to bolster search and rescue operations curtailed (temporarily) an unprecedented surge in deaths at sea, fatal incidents will remain a tragic reality as long as migrants’ only option is to enter Europe irregularly.

Under such circumstances, EU governments must put human dignity and solidarity before national electoral exigencies. Europe needs a holistic plan for migration, which includes the resettlement of refugees, expanded access to Europe through humanitarian visas and family reunification, and an easing of restrictions on freedom of movement of successful asylum seekers.

On one level, however, the Commission is right. ‘Courage’ is indeed required: if nothing else, to admit that the European Union’s entire approach to migration has so far been fatally flawed.