There is a dangerous logic to European Union policy on immigration, and over the weekend it may have claimed as many as 900 lives. That is far too high a cost.
The EU apparently agrees: After hundreds of migrants drowned Sunday on their way from Libya to Malta when their boat capsized, European officials agreed Monday to rethink their policy on migrants from Africa and the Middle East. They surely recognize that it is neither practical nor defensible to minimize rescue efforts in the Mediterranean as a way to discourage immigration.
The current EU response to migration from Africa and the Middle East consists mostly of a border-patrol program called Operation Triton, which last year replaced a similar Italian program called Mare Nostrum. The fear was not that the Italian program was too expensive — at about 9.5 million euros a month ($10.2 million), it cost three times as much as Triton, hardly a stretch for the EU’s 145-billion-euro budget — but that the program was acting as a “taxi service” for refugees.
There was some truth to this. The smugglers who operate from Libya often load migrants onto small boats with insufficient fuel and then call for help. Mare Nostrum picked up more than 163,000 refugees in 2014, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations agency for refugees. However, this “pull factor,” which the U.K. cited last year as the reason for withdrawing all support for rescue missions in the Mediterranean, is not the cause of illegal migration.
It would be nice to think that the EU should simply offer legal passage to refugees fleeing violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Politically, however, such an open-door policy is impossible, given the current anti-immigrant mood in Europe. There are practical concerns as well: Moving an unlimited number of people to Europe is not a solution to the world’s troubles.
Still, a quota-based program that allows a defined number of refugees to claim asylum and settle in the EU would help. Given an alternative to throwing themselves on the mercy of people smugglers and the open seas, many refugees would choose to apply from their camps and wait. The U.S. runs such a program for as many as 80,000 migrants annually. At their meeting Monday, EU leaders proposed voluntary resettlement of migrants in need of protection.
Precise details from the meeting of foreign and interior ministers are hard to come by, but the basic idea is encouraging: expanding the reach — and increasing the funding — of Operation Triton. The European Council will consider the full slate of proposals Thursday.
But there are no simple or quick answers here. They will have to await a more stable and prosperous neighborhood, from Libya to Syria to Sudan. At the same time, allowing people to die at sea is not an acceptable immigration policy. If the EU can do whatever it takes to help protect shipping from pirates off the coast of Somalia, it can protect human beings from death off the coast of Italy.
Frontex Joint Operation ‘Triton’ – Concerted efforts to manage migration in the Central Mediterranean MEMO-14-566_EN