Migrants Face Fortress Europe’s Deadly Moat

Kenan Malik, New York Times, April 21, 2015

Up to 1,200 people are believed to have died this past week when, in several incidents, their flimsy boats foundered in the Mediterranean. These migrants from Syria, Mali, Eritrea, Somalia and beyond had set out from North Africa hoping to reach Europe’s southern shores. Fleeing war and poverty, most had paid large sums to traffickers.

The scale of the tragedies is shocking but no novelty. It is estimated that since 1993 some 20,000 migrants have died trying to cross Europe’s southern borders. {snip}

Who is to blame? European politicians point the finger at traffickers. On Monday, European Union officials came up with a 10-point plan, including military action against smuggling networks.

The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril. But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.

For more than three decades, the European Union has been constructing what critics call “Fortress Europe,” a cordon protected by sea, air and land patrols, and a high-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the European border agency, he observed that the language used was that of “defending Europe against an enemy.”

The decision last year to scrap Mare Nostrum, the Italian-run search-and-rescue program, highlights this strategy. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Operation Triton, smaller in scope and with an entirely different aim–not saving lives but surveillance and border protection. The number of migrants now attempting to reach Europe is little different from that for the same period last year, yet the death toll is about 18 times higher.

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The 10-point plan that the European authorities proposed Monday was in keeping with this failed approach. Most eye-catching was the promise to destroy smugglers’ boats. Not only is this morally dubious–effectively telling migrants “We will wall you into North Africa so that you’re not our problem”–but it also won’t work. One reason for the spike in migrant numbers is the collapse of state authority in the region. Western intervention in Libya exacerbated the chaos, which the proposed military action will only intensify.

At the same time, migrants are forced to clamber into overloaded, unseaworthy boats because other routes into Europe have been blocked off. Destroying smugglers’ boats will merely force people to adopt even more perilous means of making the journey.

So what is to be done? The restoration of a proper search-and-rescue operation is important but insufficient. The European Union should stop treating migrants as criminals, and border control as warfare. It must dismantle Fortress Europe, liberalize immigration policy and open up legal routes for migrants. Some argue this would lead to a flood of immigrants, but current policy is not preventing people from migrating; it is simply killing them, by the boatload.

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