Lino Azzopardi / AP Photo

As migrant deaths rise, EU mulls policy shift

Leaders consider amending strict policies that have seen thousands of asylum seekers drown in the Mediterranean Sea

It took the tragic drowning of 900 migrants and asylum seekers, but it appears the European Union has finally determined that its fortresslike approach to the hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern migrants desperately trying to reach its shores has been a disastrous failure.

European Union leaders will meet Thursday in Luxembourg to discuss a 10-point plan aimed at reforming their hands-off policies in the Mediterranean Sea and at cracking down on smuggling operations from North Africa. The emergency meeting comes after yet another smuggler boat sank off the Libyan coast late Saturday, killing most of the estimated 900 people on board, including Syrian and Eritrean asylum seekers. One EU official called it “the worst massacre ever seen in the Mediterranean.”

Though the boat’s Tunisian captain and Syrian first mate will face criminal charges, many more have pinned blame squarely on the increasingly anti-immigrant border policies pursued by European governments. Last year, the EU bowed to domestic pressure and scrapped a successful, if costly, $10 million per month Italian search-and-rescue program called Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) that was credited with saving up to 100,000 migrants from similar accidents. Critics of the program, which had a fleet of planes and helicopters and 900-plus staff at its disposal, called it a "taxi service" for illegal migrants and a "pull" factor for legitimate refugees, who simply need to reach European shores in order to file an asylum claim and access social services anywhere in Europe.

In its place, the EU launched the Triton program, a more politically palatable operation that has shed nearly two-thirds of the cost by abandoning most proactive search-and-rescue operations. The argument underpinning Triton is that if migrants had no expectation of being saved when their rickety ship sank or ran out of fuel, they would be less inclined to board it in the first place. Extending a helping hand to migrants only serves as a lifeline for illegal smugglers in countries like Libya and Egypt, thereby perpetuating the cycle, hardliners say. As interpreted by Yiannis Baboulias, a Greek journalist and commentator, this line of reasoning translates to: “If we show them how cruel we are, they’ll stay away.”

But the rising number of migrant deaths has disabused many of that logic. With last weekend’s disaster, more than 1,700 have already died in 2015 — a 10-fold increase from the same time period last year — and Europe hasn’t even reached peak migration season. In the words of Dmitris Avramopolous, the European Commission’s migration chief, “If we do not act now, the crisis will take dangerous proportions in the months to come.”

Migration experts have lauded certain measures proposed by the EU plan, which is seen as a partial reversal of the Triton approach. One of the 10 points calls for doubling the size of coast guard operations, though it isn’t yet clear who would bear those costs. The asylum application process would also be sped up, so that asylum seekers applying for European protection remotely — from their home countries or while living in refugee camps — would be encouraged to wait out approval and then travel to Europe on a safer vessel. Many argue that the current policy, whereby refugees are rewarded with asylum more quickly if they show up and file in Europe, forces the most desperate to take their chances at sea.

Other mechanisms fronted by the plan include a proposal to resettle refugees across member states so that that coastal nations like Italy and Greece — both of which are slumping economically — are not left bearing an unfair share of the cost. An emergency relocation program could also be established to grant asylum applicants temporary permission to live and work in Europe, with the assumption they will ultimately return home. A similar offer was extended to Bosnians during their country's war in the 1990s.

The plan, however, says nothing about expanding search-and-rescue operations, which has been the major criticism of Triton. It also floats the controversial suggestion that the EU should take the fight against smuggling to North Africa and destroy ships before they load up with migrants — an effort many say would devolve into an endless game of whack-a-mole, as new smugglers pop up elsewhere.

Separate from the EU’s 10 points, which still must be debated, there is plenty of doubt as to whether the newfound commitment to ameliorating the crisis will amount to much more than lip service. This being an election year, incumbent European leaders may be hesitant to back expensive new measures that would only bring more unwanted immigrants into their countries, particularly at a moment when right-wing parties like the UK Independence Party or France's National Front are surging.

“In Europe, they talk about these people as waves of migrants rather than refugees,” said Dawn Chatty, the former director of Oxford University's Refugee Studies Center and the author of several books on refugees in the Middle East. “They argue we should keep them out because they’ll take our jobs and our welfare. This is the kind of rabble-rousing populist rhetoric you get in election years.”

The reality, Chatty said, is that many of those aboard these boats are “bona fide asylum seekers,” whether fleeing war in Syria and Iraq or political oppression in East Africa. Refusing to be more proactive in protecting them amounts to a shirking of Europe’s obligations under international law, she argues. Not to mention that many asylum seekers she has spoken with, especially Syrians, say they “just want to find a place to wait this out and then return home.”

Whether Europe chooses to act now or not, analysts say, there is no question that the flow of migrants and asylum seekers will not slow by itself. Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the burden for Syria's unprecedented refugee crisis continues to fall on poorer countries like Lebanon and Jordan, which “are reaching their capacity to provide protection,” said Susan Fratzke, an expert on European migration at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

“We can only expect the push factors aren’t going to resolve themselves in the near future,” Fratzke said. “So it’s an issue Europe is just going to have to deal with.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter