The Memo: Europe’s Migrant Crisis

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Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Taiwo Oshodi – 10 July 2023

Amidst the turmoil of global events in the last few years, it’s all too easy to take your eye off the migrant crisis bubbling just off the coast of Europe. Take a glance though, and you’ll see what critics have called the ‘muted’ effects of legislation aiming to mitigate the crisis in the Mediterranean. Just a few weeks ago, the continent faced one of its most profound tragedies when a fishing boat carrying refugees capsized off the southern coast of Greece. Up to 750 people are believed to have been on the boat and the UN Human Rights Office reports that up to 500 people are potentially missing, with rescuers having recovered 79 bodies.

There is a sense among many that the event was avoidable; although the Greek coastguard says the vessel sank in international waters, it was also spotted only 50 nautical miles off Pylos, and was approached by Greek coastguard vessels. A spokesman for the Greek government, Ilias Siakantaris told reporters that the ship refused help when approached, and that they continued en-route to Italy. Yet subsequent reports alleged that the coastguard may have attempted to tow the boat which may have led to it capsizing. To add fuel to the fire, a BBC investigation cast doubt on the coastguard’s claims, as satellite imagery suggested the boat had stopped moving beyond the period the guard reported it had continued to move steadily on course.

The tragedy has raised questions about the Greek response, with the UN even pushing for an investigation into the incident, but many critics have argued that it is indicative of a wider problem – and the result of deterrent EU policies. It is generally followed under international law that assistance must be provided to people in distress at sea regardless of nationality, status or the circumstances they’re found in. However, outside of Frontex – joint operations by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency – search and rescue operations (SAR) are not covered by EU legal frameworks. The EU itself acknowledged late last year that, “a lack of coordination in SAR activities, solitary action by individual countries and criminalization of NGOs active in SAR in the Mediterranean” is contributing to the crisis, and a report published by the European Parliamentary Research Service even highlights that the EU’s “shift to prioritizing enforcement against migrants at sea” and criminalization of SAR NGOs may be actively exacerbating issues in the area.

This isn’t the full story however. The EU claim that the shift in approach was intended to intercept and return smugglers, and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) reported in their last update in June last year that issues with SAR included supporting vessels with excessive passenger numbers and those with ship assets not working properly. Nevertheless, the change in policy may have contributed to making the Mediterranean the most dangerous route for those travelling from Africa and the Middle East. In 2022, almost 3,800 people died on Middle East and North Africa migration routes - the highest since 2017 according to the International Organisation for Migration. It may also serve as a case study to the detriments of deterrent policies, particularly when it has been strongly argued that the approach is in breach of international maritime, refugee, and humanitarian law.

With this in mind, the EU may need to look at new approaches to tackling the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. It is worth noting that the EU has recently announced new reforms which will see members charged €20,000 per head for states refusing to host migrants. The proposal is groundbreaking in terms of the bloc’s coordinated efforts for tackling existing issues, but the EU will not have a say as to whether a country is determined safe for migrants – individual countries will be able to decline asylum claims on these grounds. This does raise questions about the effectiveness of the bill, though these should be at least partially answered on release of the legal framework, but it could nevertheless be argued that a ‘pay-to-play’ system allowing member states to parry away asylum claims may not effectively reduce the crisis in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

For anyone interested in human rights, EU, government and public law, it is well worth keeping your eyes peeled for further developments.