Europe still chooses security over human life

The EU’s response to the death of 750 migrants was to triple Frontex’s budget and to seek a UN mandate for action against people smugglers in Libya. Has the EU even started to address the migration crisis? The answer is No.

At 7pm on Saturday, 18 April, a boat believed to be carrying close to 800 refugees collided into a Portuguese merchant vessel, taking down with it to the bottom some 750 men, women and children. 

28 survived while 24 bodies were recovered and buried in Malta last Thursday morning, in the presence of the country’s leaders, Italian defence minister Angelino Alfano and European Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos.

Meanwhile, in the capital of the European Union, technical attaches scrambled to finalise the draft conclusions of the emergency EU summit, convened in Brussels to present options for immediate action as fingers were being pointed at the EU for its years of inaction and empty promises on migration.

Embarking on death trips in the hope of finding a future in Europe, the 750 people were not the first to die this year, nor will they be the last: less than a week before, another 400 people lost their lives attempting the dangerous sea crossing from Libya. In the first three months of the year, more than 500 migrants perished in the Mediterranean – 10 times the number over the same period last year.

European Council President Donald Tusk invited the 28 leaders to see what the Member States and the EU institutions could do to bring immediate relief.

However, for human rights NGOs, the conclusions left much more to be desired and, according to Amnesty International, Europe had once again failed to save lives.

The Council committed itself to four points, mainly “to strengthening its presence at sea; fighting traffickers in accordance with international law; preventing illegal migration flows and to reinforcing internal solidarity and responsibility”.

It pledged to strengthen its presence at sea – tripling the financial resources and reinforcing the number of assets used by Frontex – and to seek a UN mandate for the destruction of boats used by people smugglers in Libya.

It also agreed to reinforce its political cooperation with African partners at all levels in order to tackle the cause of illegal migration and combat smuggling and trafficking. The EU will raise these issues with the African Union and the key countries concerned during a summit to be held Malta in the coming months.

The Council agreed to set up a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement across the EU, offering places to persons qualifying for protection; while increasing emergency aid to frontline Member States and consider options for organising emergency relocation between all Member States on a voluntary basis.

In reality, nothing has changed: there exists no common policy, no mandatory sharing of an influx while national governments were determined to retain prerogatives over deciding their own refugee admissions policies.

In fact, no reference whatsoever was made to the Dublin II regulation during the four-hour meeting. 

Speaking to MaltaToday ahead of the summit, Amnesty International Acting Director Iverna McGowan had said that, unless it provides an alternative solution to Mare Nostrum, the EU would have failed to save lives once again. 

While the European Council proudly announced that a monthly €9 million – up from €2.9 million – will be allocated to Frontex to manage Operation Triton, it can never be an adequate replacement to discontinued Italian operation Mare Nostrum, a mission that rescued close to 100,000 refugees.

At a monthly budget of €9 million, Mare Nostrum boasted of five Italian navy ships, two planes, three drones, and up to nine helicopters. Manpower added up to 900 and covered 27,000 square miles of sea.

By contrast, border patrol Triton operated by the EU border agency Frontex, extended to 30 miles off the Italian coast, made use of seven coastguard vessels, two planes, one helicopter and manpower reaching just 65. 

Frontex’s rules of engagement have not changed, meaning that – so far – its priority is to protect Europe’s borders rather than the people at sea. It is yet unclear whether its border patrol will be extended. 

France has now announced it can provide two ships and three aircraft; Germany will supply two ships, while Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have each pledged a ship.

The United Kingdom – a non-member – announced it will participate in Operation Triton and lend its HMS Bulwark, one of the largest vessels of the British navy, two patrol boats and three helicopters and it will act on its expense. David Cameron’s condition is that “there is no question that [rescued migrants] can apply for asylum in the UK”.

“The notable exception is the very clear political signal that Europe is ready to act against the criminal network managing illegal migration flows and profiting from innocent lives,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told journalists right after the summit. 

But almost making a mockery of the European Council, smugglers at the fishing port in Zuwara, Libya, didn’t appear to bat an eyelid as Europe practically declared war against them.

Speaking to the Guardian, two smugglers simply brushed off the threats coming from Europe: “It’s been happening for years, these promises and threats. They’ll move on. What are they going to do, put two frigates here? Two warships? In Libyan waters? That’s an invasion.”

“Who? Where?” asked another one when contemplating the potential targets of EU anti-smuggling operations. “No one has the name ‘smuggler’ written on their chest. Anyone here who has no money can sell their apartment, buy a boat, and organise a smuggling trip. By the time of the next trip you’d already have regained half the cost of the apartment. It’s a very easy formula.”

The Guardian was told that “the appetite” for illegal migration will not stop.

“There are smugglers who work for the pleasure of making money, even in Zuwara. But there are others like me who work for the pleasure of putting pressure on you [Europeans].

“It’s not going to stop. It’s simply not going to stop. The borders in the south [of Libya] are open, and there is always going to be an appetite for it.”

According to a 2014 Frontex report, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were used to share information on how to enter the EU illegally and the destinations available. 

The risk analysis report revealed how Facebook pages allowed a sort of “shopping” by migrants to find the most suitable deal for them.

More in National