Immigration is often crudely compared to a “flood”—migrants portrayed as human “tides” streaming chaotically over the border. But on the Mediterranean coastline, that often hyperbolic metaphor can seem disturbingly apt. On any given day, boatloads of people are adrift on the sea, headed to Southern Europe to escape conflict, persecution or devastating poverty. And in shipwreck after shipwreck, bodies get strewn onto the rough waters, abandoned by the governments of their own nations and of their destinations.
According to a report by Amnesty International, the migrant crisis along Europe’s Mediterranean border is growing deadlier by the day. But European countries, particularly the wealthy northern states of “Fortress Europe,” are neglecting the humanitarian crisis bubbling up from the Global South.
Despite efforts to deter unauthorized migration, advocates say that people do not stop coming, and so they keep dying. An average of 40,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean corridor annually since 1998. In 2014 alone, the seas have claimed at least 2,500 lives already, up from 1,500 in 2011. Italy’s search-and-rescue maritime humanitarian agency, Operation Mare Nostrum, has saved more than 130,000 refugees and migrants since last October. But researchers note “the real number will never be known, as many bodies are lost at sea.”
Amnesty condemns EU policymakers on multiple fronts: the intergovernmental border security force, Frontex, has intensified enforcement of western land borders, which cuts off critical land routes through Greece and neighboring countries, and in turn drives migrants toward more perilous sea crossings. Additionally, European governments have failed to take collective responsibility for the migrants, so southern coastal states are unfairly burdened with processing the bulk of the arrivals. And after landing, the humanitarian crisis continues: migrants are frequently denied due process, which can prevent traumatized refugees from qualifying for the asylum they deserve.
Now, as funding and logistical resources run thin, the countries helming the front-line rescue efforts, Malta and Italy, have warned that they cannot sustain their humanitarian programs without major assistance from other EU nations.
The migrants’ stories span the spectrum of humanitarian tragedy. Refugees are fleeing Syria, Palestine, and Eritrea in droves. Others are driven by economic desperation, paying smugglers to leave Gambia, Senegal and other poor nations to join the labor migration cycle.
Abdel, a Syrian marble worker interviewed by Amnesty, fled Aleppo first to Libya, then tried to board a Europe-bound boat with his family, only to get lost at sea with hundreds of Syrians and Africans. He described vicious violence on the journey from the North African coast:
[The smuggler said] we would leave on the same day, but it took three days for the boat to leave…. My children didn’t even have blankets or jackets and had to sleep on the sand, in the open…. Libyan men involved in the operation would come to the beach every day with guns and would terrorize us. I saw some Africans get beaten and some were even beaten to death with wooden and iron pieces. The Africans had it the worst because they treated them as if they weren’t human beings.
According to the report, search-and-rescue operations are often hindered due to confusion around which states are responsible for different areas of international waters. Malta and Italy often overlap in the areas they patrol, so rescued families might be split up to different countries.
Another barrier is that under EU policies known as the Dublin Regulations, asylum-seekers and migrants are generally forced to be legally processed in the country where they first land. This rule hinders many from relocating to other European countries to reunify with relatives and diaspora communities.
The current migration rules, Amnesty argues, force coastal states to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of handling migration flows.
For the Maltese and Italian governments, says Amnesty campaigner Matteo de Bellis, “Preoccupations about migration policies and the burden that the number of people arriving would create, are actually playing a role in deterring those coastal states from engaging in search-and-rescue activities as thoroughly and as well as they should.”
Since those states lack the resources to coordinate a comprehensive humanitarian response, Amnesty argues, “A collective EU response is needed to meet a shared EU responsibility.” There are marginal signs of progress: Frontex has promised to take over rescue duties. However, Amnesty warns that Frontex, as a border patrol agency, appears ill-equipped to deal with the migration crisis, and needs far more funding and a more comprehensive mandate to expand its operations. Moreover, policymakers must develop a more coordinated migration policy “for sharing the responsibility for–and distributing the cost of—receiving and processing irregular migrants and asylum-seekers.”
Another basic way to protect migrants is just by issuing more humanitarian and family-based visas, which would allow “more safe and legal ways” of entering the EU and avoiding the perilous sea route.
Since they face such desperate circumstances, de Bellis says, migrants and refugees “will travel no matter what. And if Europe wants to reduce the number of people risking their lives on this journey, they can certainly do that by offering more places for resettlement… then certainly these people will not need to pass through the sea and sadly, in many cases, die.”
But the deeper problem facing migrants lies beyond the shoreline. EU immigration policy forces many into indefinite legal limbo, destitute and isolated. One Syrian refugee, Mohammed Kazkji—who left his studies in electrical engineering, fled to Libya, and then boarded a boat in hopes of reaching Holland—ended up nearly drowning in a massive shipwreck last October. Today, he is still stuck in Malta, part of a growing community of refugee transients. Shut out of the regular workforce, he tells The Nation, he scrounges for informal jobs: “I work one day, two days, and I can’t come back to work, because the police are everywhere.”
He says he tried to resettle in Holland but was forced to return. When Netherlands authorities ordered him back to Malta, he said, “I am dead. My future is dead. Because I can’t work, I can’t study in Malta…. Just staying in Malta and waiting. Waiting for what? Nothing.” While he tries to sort out his legal case, Kazkji suffers through bouts of homelessness, indefinite separation from family in Syria, and lingering trauma. “All I want [is to leave] this country,” he says. “Because they don’t want me. When I go onto the street, everybody looks at me like [I’m] a monster… When I remember what happened to me… I can’t speak.”
But EU authorities don’t seem to be listening, anyway. Instead, officials let the Mediterranean tides drown out those migrants’ cries, keeping Fortress Europe quietly walled off from the troubles of the world outside.