Lampedusa is a small, sunny island in the Mediterranean, only 20.2 square kilometres in size and with a population of 5,500. It is the southernmost point of Italy, but geographically it is located closer to Africa. In just one week, Lampedusa became a symbol for the immigration problem affecting the whole Mediterranean region. What is it that’s actually going on? Could the tragic events in Lampedusa be a catalyst for Europe to find new solutions to its old problem?
Lampedusa became known to everyone in Europe in an unfortunate way on October 3rd, 2013. The pressure cooker of illegal immigration which has long been brewing in Italy, particularly in the Lampedusa area, burst when a fishing boat capsized while carrying around 500 people who were trying to enter Italy. More than 300 travellers, most of them Eritrean, drowned in the disaster.
It all happened very fast. An open fire was lit on the deck to attract the attention of nearby boats. The fire spread and panic arose. All those on deck ran to the same side of the boat, causing it to turn over. The human traffickers had already denied most of their passengers of any chance of survival by packing 20 times more people onto the cramped boat than it should have carried.
Lampedusa has now become a symbol for the long-ongoing, complex phenomenon of immigration in Europe. Migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Africa on jam-packed boats unsuited to the open sea have been an unpleasant reality throughout the twenty-first century. Over the years, certain routes have become established in the eastern, central and western parts of the Mediterranean, along which each year tens of thousands of people risk their lives to reach Europe, mostly via Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain.
Frontex, the European Union agency for external border security, has battled with the phenomenon since its establishment in 2005, alongside other official bodies. Frontex arranged its first maritime operation already in 2006, and currently two operations coordinated by the agency are under way in the Mediterranean.
Over the years there have been significant fluctuations in the intensity of refugee streams crossing the Mediterranean, but after the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, and with the current chaotic situation in Syria, the quantities are once again growing sharply. However, it is important to remember that the Mediterranean is not the only scenario: the situation has been as difficult on certain land borders, for instance the European border of Turkey.
The phenomenon is complex because it involves many mutually related factors and has no single cure or solution. The issue is both politically and operationally difficult. In addition, the situation changes constantly, hand in hand with the altering situations in Libya and Syria, for example.
The complexity is clear also in the diversity of views that have been voiced in the last week. So far, I have counted at least 13 different standpoints – leaning on external relations, border security, increasing opportunities for legal immigration, and the EU budget, to mention but a few – and they are all valid in their own ways. The essential question is, which of the viewpoints are the most important ones right now? We have to start somewhere in order to create foundations for successful long-term changes.
The most evident and visible problem right now is that the capacities for border control, sea rescue, reception and asylum of the EU’s southern external border are simply insufficient for dealing with the immigration flows coming from the south. The Mediterranean nations are demanding greater shared responsibility from the other member states. The uncontrolled nature of the immigration flows means that incomers move deeper into Europe along various routes, and settle in the Schengen Area outside all safety nets. We know nothing about them. Many of them pay their debts to the human traffickers by committing crimes or prostitution somewhere in Europe.
Another clear point is that those who gain the most from the current situation are the human traffickers. Those involved in the latest disaster had paid around 2,000 dollars per person for their tickets to death. The cheaper and more defective the boat, and the more people that are jammed onto it, the more profitable the operation is. The more profitable the operation, the more extensive the business around it grows. Boats in poor conditions fall in pieces as soon as they meet bigger waves in the open sea, because they are overcrowded. This means that the maritime rescue systems of the Mediterranean countries are in continuous distress. This should never be allowed to become business as usual; it must be rooted out as effectively as possible.
We all know that rescuing people from these boats is a way of dealing with consequences rather than causes. Now, we must work on the causes and their effects simultaneously. Last week the Justice and Home Affairs Council decided to designate a task force specifically around this issue. All member states have been asked to participate. The issue is being tackled with new vigour. Immigration questions must not reach an uncontrolled crisis point in Europe.
According to the first agenda of the task force, next week it will sink its teeth into sea rescue arrangements, the fight against organised crime, collaboration with third party states, the question of how to provide better support for the member states on the southern external border, and the EU’s return policy. These are good points for short term. The Commission has also made a call for innovations in the area. They are certainly necessary: if we already had the right tools to fix the problem with, the situation wouldn’t have been escalating for over ten years already.
Counsellor, Border security and visas