Europe’s boat people / The Economist

May 13th 2015, 12:20



THE SMUGGLING of people across the Mediterranean is not new; nor are the losses at sea that come with it. But the trade has vastly expanded over the past few years thanks to two developments. The civil war in Syria has displaced 8m people inside that country and forced 4m to leave it. Most of these refugees stay in neighbouring countries. But many wish to go farther. Some head for Libya, either by crossing Egypt or by flying to Sudan and joining one of the smuggling routes that cross the Sahara. There they will meet refugees fleeing Eritrea, a country which, with its mixture of indefinite military service, torture, arbitrary detention and all-round government repression has one of the worst human-rights records in the world. Libya is now another casualty of the Arab spring. So the smuggling routes which used to take people there as an end in itself—moving there was an attractive proposition for many in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to an oil-rich economy—now continue right through it and into the sea.

But these developments do not explain why so many of the migrants now end up dying. The vast majority of those who leave Libya head for Italian shores—often its small island of Lampedusa—but increasing numbers do not make it. The UNHCR estimates that 26,165 migrants have reached Italy this year, a similar number to the 26,644 who arrived in the first four months of 2014. However in the first four months of 2014 only 96 are thought to have died, as opposed to an estimated 1,700 so far this year, a huge increase. The main difference is that in early 2014 the Italian navy was operating a comprehensive naval interception operation, called Mare Nostrum. More than 140,000 migrants were taken on board Mare Nostrum’s ships between October 2013 and October 2014. At that point it was replaced by a scaled-down operation called Triton, run by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, which only operates out to 50km (30 miles) off the Italian coast. Among the arguments for this new, cheaper option was the idea that, if shutting down Mare Nostrum made the passage riskier, then fewer would attempt it. Tragically, this appears not to have been the case.

The European Union’s Dublin regulation says that the first EU country a migrant arrives at must take responsibility for him or her; southern countries say this puts too much of the burden of border management on them. Germany, France and Britain, though, say they end up taking more refugees and migrants, both because of migration along other routes (for example, through the Balkans) and because southerners encourage migrants to move northwards. Reaching an agreement on an equitable distribution of the burden has not yet proved possible.

The anti-immigration right wants to portray boat people as being for the most part economic migrants, who have no legal right to refuge; but a great many of them are not. Half of last year’s arrivals in Italy were from Syria and Eritrea. On an EU-wide basis, two-thirds of the applicants from those countries qualified for refugee status in the last quarter of 2014. Despite this many Europeans see migrants as a threat to their jobs and security, especially in the south. People in countries like Germany and Britain that end up with the best-qualified migrants tend to have a more favourable view.

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