A week after a series of migrant boat disasters in the Mediterranean left over 1,200 people dead, the contours of Europe’s official response to the mass drownings are already starting to emerge — and the picture does not look pretty. On Wednesday, the head of the EU border agency Frontex declared that saving the lives of migrants and refugees 'shouldn’t be a priority' for naval patrols. Instead, EU leaders have declared war on the traffickers, vowing to crack down on criminal networks in Libya and elsewhere.
This approach to the “migrant crisis” as an outgrowth of lawlessness and criminality overseas is dangerously wrongheaded. For all their talk of tackling the problem at its roots, EU leaders are once again fixating on the symptoms — treating the recent spate of sinkings as a failure of border control rather than the complex political, economic and humanitarian crisis it really is. In truth, these traffickers are merely exploiting a cynical opportunity that would not have existed if the EU had actually lived up to its international responsibilities by offering safe passage to migrant workers and political refugees alike.
People are dying in the Mediterranean today not just because abusive smugglers are able to pursue their reprehensible business undisturbed, but because war, repression and deprivation are pushing millions of desperate souls to flee their homes in search of a better existence in Europe, only to be met with an extremely restrictive migration and deportation regime that leaves them with no options for a proper, legal crossing. It is the inhumane reality of Fortress Europe, with its racist and murderous overtones, that drives innocent migrants and refugees into the arms of opportunistic traffickers to begin with.
Apart from stepping up search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean, the only way to prevent more tragic drownings in the immediate term would be to offer asylum and safe passage to all political refugees (especially from countries like Syria, Sudan and Eritrea), and to ease visa restrictions for economic migrants who wish to come to Europe to work. After all, if they had a legal way to enter Europe, none of these people would be willing to enslave themselves to criminal traffickers or pay extortionate fees for a crossing that will have them risk their lives on crammed and unseaworthy fishing boats.
Meanwhile, a more long-term solution would have to address the underlying causes of mass migration itself: from the violent conflicts spreading across Africa and the Middle East to the widening international gulf between the haves and the have-nots, between core and periphery. No one would willingly trawl across the desert or entrust the lives of their children to the shabby dinghies of the smugglers if they actually saw an opportunity to live a decent life in their countries of origin. The best way for Europe to relieve the pressures of mass migration (insofar as migration is a problem at all) would be to fight its underlying causes — something EU leaders have not shown the slightest interest in.
The problem, of course, is that our leaders are cowards who do not dare to do the right thing for fear of being punished at the polls. Racist Europeans have long guarded their borders and their privileges with virulent jealousy, but there is no doubt that six years of austerity have rendered electorates across the continent more anxious and xenophobic than ever. Right-wing firebrands like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders are making headway with their anti-immigrant rhetoric, and centrist politicians everywhere are enthralled to their exclusionary populist discourse — one that is wildly out of touch with the complex realities of an increasingly turbulent and interconnected world.
And so the best thing EU leaders could agree upon during their crisis meeting in Brussels on Thursday was to triple the budget for the Triton sea surveillance mission and to offer an additional 5,000 resettlement places to refugees who survived the crossing. Both measures are utterly farcical: the 5,000 resettlement places pale into insignificance when contrasted to the 3.5 million people who have been displaced in the Syrian civil war alone, while Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri was quick to emphasize that “Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation [because] this is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union.”
In the past 15 years, 22.000 people are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean in search of a better future in Europe. Last year alone, some 3.500 people lost their lives trying to make the crossing. The numbers are likely to skyrocket in the decades ahead, as the untold damage wrought by global capitalism, regional conflict and climate change will force millions more from their homes. Many of these people still look to Europe with hope and aspiration — yet the beacon they dream of responds by erecting walls and deploying frigates to keep them out. Apparently Europeans today would rather recover dead bodies from the sea than welcome living human beings into their societies.
This unspeakable brutality has to stop. Europe's racist and murderous migration regime must be dismantled. The easiest, fastest and by far the cheapest way to prevent more unnecessary deaths is to ease visa requirements for migrant workers and to offer safe passage and resettlement to all political refugees. There is nothing radical or idealistic about such proposals: it is simply our international responsibility and our historical duty as human beings and privileged citizens of this affluent continent. If we still believe in our own values, we must open our borders to those who yearn for life. Nothing less will do.
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @JeromeRoos.