Friday, August 26, 2016

Europe’s migrant crisis

Record numbers of migrants are drowning while trying to flee the Mideast and Africa for Europe. Why do they keep coming?

How many people are dying?
Since January, an estimated 1,750
migrants have drowned trying to reach
Europe via boat—a greater death toll
than the Titanic’s. Hoping to escape
the war, poverty, and violence of their
own countries in Africa and the Middle
East, these desperate refugees pay up
to $2,000 each for a spot on one of the
overloaded, rickety fishing vessels or rubber
dinghies crossing the Mediterranean
every day. Last year, a staggering
215,000 migrants successfully reached
Europe, most landing in Italy. Italy sent
only 5,000 home; the rest disappeared
into the Continent, with many headed to Northern Europe in
search of work and better lives. But often these voyages end in a
tragedy—such as the April 19 disaster, in which about 900 refugees
drowned en route from Libya. With another million migrants
reportedly waiting in Libya to cross the dangerous seas, the United
Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned that
European leaders must do something to stem the crisis—or they
“risk turning the Mediterranean into a vast cemetery.”
Where are the boats coming from?
About 80 percent of migrants set sail from the failed state of
Libya, where a multimillion-dollar smuggling business has sprung
up in the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Last year, a
vast network of Libyan militias collaborated with Italian crime
syndicates to make an estimated $170 million in people smuggling.
The traffickers exploit migrants who have traveled more
than 1,000 miles from countries as diverse as Niger, Iraq, Somalia,
and Eritrea to start a new life. An estimated 31 percent are from
Syria, driven away by a horrific civil war. “These are the most
desperate people,” says Flavio Di Giacomo, from the International
Organization of Migration. They know the voyages are perilous,
but are stuck “between hell and the deep blue sea.”
Why do so many boats sink?
To maximize their profits, smugglers
pack masses of migrants into
cheap, barely seaworthy boats. In last
week’s tragedy, the 900 migrants were
crammed into a 66-foot wooden fishing
boat. When too many passengers
lean on one side of those ramshackle
vessels, they capsize. Even worse, hundreds
of poorer African migrants are
often locked into the boat’s teeming
hold for crowd control. So if the ship
goes down, they have no choice but
to go down with it. Sometimes, smugglers
put migrants on a boat with no
captain, hand them a compass, and
tell them to find their own way to
Europe. Rescue boats save some of
these lost vessels, but many wind up
sinking or capsizing. The death toll
has grown astronomically since the
demise of Operation Mare Nostrum
last November.
What’s that?
Mare Nostrum (or Our Sea) was an
Italian naval rescue operation, launched
after 300 people drowned off the
Italian island of Lampedusa in October
2013. At a monthly cost of $9.7 million,
Italian rescue boats trawled the
Mediterranean looking for migrants in
distress—ultimately saving and bringing
back to Italy more than 140,000
refugees in a single year. But the operation
fell victim to political opposition:
Italian lawmakers claimed migrants were using the rescue boats
as a taxi service, and called on the EU to help fund the costly program.
Instead, European leaders axed the operation altogether.
Why did Europe back out?
Britain was one of many countries that claimed Mare Nostrum
was creating an “unintended ‘pull factor’” for migrants: If they
knew there was a good chance they’d be rescued, they were
more likely to risk the journey. The EU instead embraced a new
“Fortress Europe” approach, tightening the borders and launching
the limited Triton program, which only searches the waters within
30 miles of Italy’s coastline. But Triton has done nothing to drive
down migrant numbers, which remain as high as in 2014, when
about 26,000 refugees crossed over in the first four months of the
year. The only thing that’s changed is the number of deaths, which
has multiplied 30 times. By April 21 in 2014, 56 people had
died. This year by that date, 1,727 had. “When Operation Mare
Nostrum was cut, we said it would be a death sentence,” says
Save the Children’s Gemma Parkin, “and it has been just that.”
What’s the solution?
Facing an international outcry after last week’s disaster, EU leaders
cobbled together a “10-point plan” that triples Triton funding and
pledges to destroy smugglers’ boats
in Libya. But many migrant advocates
argue the plan doesn’t go far
enough. Some European lawmakers
are for adopting Australia’s controversial
approach (see box). Human
rights experts argue that the crisis
will exist as long as Middle Eastern
and African countries remain in
chaos. Instead of treating these
migrants like criminals, they say,
Europe should provide safe migration
routes. But European nations
say they are already struggling to
absorb the hundreds of thousands of
migrants who have already landed
on the Continent’s shores. “We’re
swamped,” says Italy’s minister for
European affairs. “There’s not even
enough space in Sicily’s cemeteries to
bury the dead.”

Australia’s closed-door policy
When a wave of Iraqi and Afghan migrants set
sail for Australia five years ago, lawmakers Down
Under responded by adopting one of the world’s
harshest border policies. There would be absolutely
no resettlement of migrants, the Australian government
announced. Instead, the migrants would be
towed back to the Indonesian ports they’d set off
from, or imprisoned in detention centers in remote
Papua New Guinea before being shipped to destinations
such as Cambodia. On the surface, the policy
has worked: Since 2013, only 16 migrant boats have
attempted the journey to Australia. But migrant
advocates argue Australia hasn’t “stopped the
boats” at all. “What Australia has done is just displace
the issue away from the shores of Australia”
and toward the Mediterranean, says Paul Power of
the Refugee Council of Australia. “They have almost
without doubt made the situation worse for people
who have tried to find safety in Europe.”

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