Over the Easter weekend, up to 1,500 migrants were rescued from the Mediterranean, as EU officials plan to curb the number of refugees making European landfall and claiming asylum. The Italian Navy and Coastguard saved the people from five different boats after picking up satellite phone distress calls from three migrant vessels, finding two more boats in trouble when the rescuers arrived.
Separately, an Icelandic navy ship rescued over 300 migrants, including 14 children and five pregnant women off the coast of Libya. The Icelandic vessel formed part of a patrol for the EU borders agency Frontex. Those rescued were later landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which Pope Francis visited in his first trip after his election to express his solidarity with the sufferers, and at several ports on Sicily.
Official reports suggest that the number of people entering Europe illegally almost tripled in 2014 while over the first two months of this year, arrivals were up 43 percent over the same period one year ago. Their dangerous sea-crossing often starts in chaotic and unpoliced Libya. They come from all over the Middle East, Syria prominently, and Africa, fleeing war, poverty or both. Most often these vulnerable people, having parted with significant cash sums said to be up to $6,000 to pay for the crossing, attempt the northward Mediterranean crossing in boats that are barely seaworthy and always seriously overcrowded, far too small for the numbers. This factor, and the lack of any marine skills at their disposal, has tragically led to over 3,200 deaths at sea in 2014 while over 200,000 were rescued, according to UNHCR figures. The death-toll continues to rise this year.
Italy has been hard pressed to cope with the arrivals. Its tiny southern neighbour, the island state of Malta, also an EU member, struggles to cope. Italy is not necessarily the final destination of choice for the migrants; Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, reckons that most seek asylum in Germany, followed by Britain, Sweden and France. Not all enter by the dangerous sea-route; many travel by conventional means including regular ferries, surface transport and even by air. The total number of people to seek asylum in the EU last year is said to be around 626,000.
These numbers and the pressure on services have led to an Italian-led effort designed to restrict the number of sea-borne refugees by intercepting and repelling them. These proposals come at a time when many EU member states are attracting criticism for refusing to accept and resettle greater numbers of migrants. It is rumoured that a deal is about to be struck with Egyptian and Tunisian authorities. According to reports in Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine, the two countries’ navies would interdict the refugees, returning them to those countries rather than removing them to their countries of origin.
Critics call this “outsourcing” of service to refugees; the deal allegedly incudes provision for EU states to finance and train Egyptian and Tunisian naval forces in rescue missions. In a related proposal, Germany has put forward the idea of setting up refugee transit centres in North Africa to try to stem the flow and to prevent so many deaths by drowning. The scheme has so far been supported by Spain, France and Austria. Human rights groups have expressed considerable concern at these proposals, citing the instability of the North African states involved, as well as a moral claim on rich European states to welcome people who are desperate for a better chance in life. Politicians stoke populist fears that migrants come to feed off generous social benefits. Increasingly too, some European voices can be heard warning of a link between migrants and terror; not only is the destination state’s social and economic stability threatened, on this view, but also its security.
Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken out about the plight of seaborne EU-bound migrants, has called on European governments to do more to prevent the Mediterranean from becoming “one vast cemetery.” Speaking at the European parliament in Strasbourg in November 2014, he asked leaders to work together to protect immigrants from human traffickers and establish a Europe that “revolves not around the economy but around the sacredness of the human person.”
David Stewart, S.J., is America’s London correspondent.