Alessandro Di Meo / ANSA / AP

Enforcement is not the answer to the migrant crisis

EU’s plan to crack down on traffickers and stop migrant boats in the Mediterranean will endanger the migrants even more

June 8, 2015 2:00AM ET

The influx of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa continues unabated. In the last weekend of May alone, European naval and merchant ships rescued more than 5,000 migrants after boats in the Mediterranean issued distress calls, according the European Union border control agency, Frontex. The death toll is also on the rise. At least 1,770 people have died so far this year — up from 56 at this same time last year. The International Organization for Migration warns that the migrant death toll could reach 30,000 in 2015.

Frontex has stepped up its search and rescue efforts after nearly 900 migrants drowned off Libya’s coast in April. But EU leaders remain divided on just what to do with those already in Europe. At least 40,000 people have reached Italy by boat since January. Yet so far, the EU’s response has focused on border enforcement and a crackdown on traffickers. This emphasis not only ignores the primary drives of migration but also jeopardizes millions of people who are seeking refuge from repressive regimes.

Other European plans are equally riddled with flaws. On May 27, the EU called on member states to absorb 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean migrants over the next two years. But that figure grossly underestimates the number of asylum seekers and limits who may apply for relief. More than 600,000 migrants sought asylum in the EU last year. The disparity between the number of arrivals and those given asylum means that huge numbers of migrants will have no legal status. That, in turn, is used to justify laws that treat the lack of legal status as a criminal offense.

European governments facing the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant parties are increasingly imposing restrictions on asylum. Undocumented status became a crime in Italy in 2002, and other Europeans countries have passed similar legislation. International law guarantees migrants the right to seek asylum. Migration is not a criminal act and shouldn’t be punished in Europe or on the high seas. EU rules and standards require identifying migrants and hosting them in adequate conditions. Asylum cases must be assessed on an individual basis in the first country in which they arrive. Those who qualify for relief must be allowed to reunite with family members who are already living in EU countries.

However, rather than protect the rights of migrants, European political leaders continue to blame traffickers for the wave of deaths at sea. In April, French President François Hollande urged a “tougher fight against traffickers,” and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called them “the slave drivers of the 21st century.” European leaders are insisting on a plan that would stop boats carrying migrants in the Mediterranean, returning the asylum seekers to their points of origin, mostly Libya, and then sinking the dinghies. These actions would violate the basic right to asylum and endanger the migrants. 

The EU is bound by international law and may not return potential refugees to transit countries, where they could face persecution or be forced to return to their home countries. But the focus on traffickers helps European leaders avoid shouldering responsibility for the conditions that drive migrants from their homes and make migration a necessity for survival. Asylum is typically given to people fleeing wars or political persecution. Yet the causes of war, repression and poverty are often intertwined. Criminalizing migrants and sinking boats will no more halt the flow of people than building detention centers or walls on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ending forced migration requires changing the way EU countries deal with their former colonies and other developing nations.

There are more humane and lawful ways to deal with this crisis. Laura Boldrini, the president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and and a former spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, suggests that the U.N. refugee agency could set up offices in North Africa where people can apply for asylum. By doing so, the flow of migrants could be organized, and asylum seekers could be distributed more evenly among European countries. In 2013, Germany processed 200,000 asylum claims and Italy 64,000, while Finland processed only 3,600 and the Czech Republic 1,000.

“The European Union is founded on solidarity among member states,” Boldrini said. She believes fair distribution of asylum seekers is a good example of that principle. Her proposal to screen migrants before they leave North Africa could help save thousands of lives and guarantee their rights to seek refuge from a world where the right to stay home in dignity is still a dream. Ensuring that EU countries share asylum seekers more equitably could help reduce the hostility that migrants face in their host countries. And she advocates tracing the revenues of smugglers and cutting them off by following bank transfers.

To be clear, none of these measures will stop migration, nor are they intended to. But they can minimize the migrant deaths at sea and ensure a more humane treatment of those already in Europe. Ultimately, there is no military solution to stop migration. People smuggling is a consequence and not the cause of emigration from Africa and the Middle East. In fact, people smugglers have prospered because of the chaos produced by European military intervention in Libya.

Furthermore, EU members continue to negotiate trade agreements with and impose structural adjustments on governments across Africa and the Middle East, with the main purpose to benefit investors and corporations. This includes a recent aid package to Eritrea and the Economic Partnership Agreement with the East African Community, which includes some of such migrant-producing countries as Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

Ending forced migration requires changing the way EU countries deal with their former colonies and other developing nations. Europe can take basic steps to give people a future in their home countries. This includes ending military intervention and support for autocratic regimes, overturning austerity policies and revising trade and investment pacts that lead to economic polarization. These measures could help people achieve the right to stay home, to make migration a voluntary choice rather than an act forced by the need to survive. 

David Bacon is a photojournalist and the author of four books on migration. His latest book, “The Right to Stay Home” was published in 2013.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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