The tragic deaths of an estimated 700 people in the Mediterranean this week have again highlighted the limits of Europe’s responses to migration, including forced migration and human trafficking. It has taken the deaths, the avoidable deaths of hundreds of desperate people, including several hundred children, to jolt Europe into action. These tragic events were avoidable, and following the policy choices made by the European Union and its Member States in 2014, they were, sadly, all too predictable.
Following Italy’s decision to end the successful Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, because of a lack of financial support, the EU launched the much more limited Triton mission, the priority of which was ‘border management’.
The Mare Nostrum mission itself was launched by Italy in response to another tragic event, the drowning of 366 Eritrean and Somali men, women and children off the coast of Lampedusa. This event is now almost forgotten. At that time, the European Council met and expressed its deep sadness at this tragedy which, it said, “shocked all Europeans”. Sadly these words have become all too familiar. Commissioner Malström called for a more open approach to migration, to define a common European policy based on the rights of the migrants and of the asylum seekers and on solidarity to both the migrants and the Member States.
In 2011, we heard similar expressions of outrage following the ‘boat left-to-die’ tragedy, when more than 60 people lost their lives amid confusion and dispute as to who bore the legal responsibility to launch a rescue mission. Rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Dutch Parliamentarian Tineke Strik, concluded following her investigation that this was a tragedy that should not have happened – in the busy Canal of Sicily.
The Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking (GRETA), commended Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation, as an example of best practice in protecting victims of trafficking. In 2014, Mare Nostrum saved the lives of more than 150,000 people. When the mission was ended, GRETA wrote to Prime Minister Renzi expressing its concern at the ending of the Operation and calling for its reinstatement.
Mr Francios Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on Migration, writing in December 2014, expressed his fear that without Mare Nostrum, thousands of people would die in 2015. Shamefully, and tragically, his fears have been realised. In October 2014, the UK Govt. announced that it would not support search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean because they created, in their words, an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. The failure to recognise the desperation and trauma endured by people who are smuggled or trafficked, many of them children, provoked outraged responses from civil society, UN and European human rights bodies. In a strongly worded statement, Mr Crépeau said:
The European Council has now agreed to triple the funding to be provided to Operation Triton, headed up by the EU agency, Frontex and the Italian authorities. An increase in the numbers of Syrian refugees to be resettled is also likely, though remains a matter of voluntary pledges. The recognition that the Dublin system is broken is welcome, if long overdue.
The proposal to seek a UN Security Council resolution to destroy the vessels of traffickers and smugglers reflects a continuing preoccupation with security. As yet, far too little is being done to respond to what is a humanitarian and human rights crisis. Despite a Joint Statement from UN leaders, calling for expanded access to regular migration routes, this is not addressed, the focus remaining on return of irregular migrants (including through expedited removals), and externalisation of border controls.
UN Special Representative on Migration, Mr Peter Sutherland speaking on Morning Ireland commented that there is a lack of clarity on the responsibilities of states towards asylum seekers who arrive on their shores. The responsibilities, however, are clear, and have been reinforced by the European Court of Human Rights in its landmark 2012 judgment, Hirsi v Italy, which condemned any ‘push back’ of asylum seekers or migrants to countries where they would face torture, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Ireland has done far too little to assist in this crisis to date. The comittment to providing a fully crewed naval vessel is welcome, but it is not enough. We could and should play a much bigger role in resettlement of Syrian refugees, as called for by UNHCR for several years now. The avoidable deaths of children, women and man in coffin ships should be confined to the distant and sad past, not an all too familiar tragedy on the shores of the European Union.
Professor Siobhán Mullally, Director, Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, University College Cork, Vice-President of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings.