This past July I wrote about Italy’s Mare Nostrum project, which was designed to save vulnerable migrants while crossing the Mediterranean. The program has cost the Italian Government approximately 9 million euros per month, and will be officially phased out by the end of the year. Part of the reason the program was ended was due to the establishment of ‘Operation Triton’, a new initiative launched by the EU border security agency Frontex on November 1.
Proponents of Mare Nostrum have argued that it is essential for protecting lives, while critics have argued that it encourages people to make the risky journey, knowing that the Italian Navy will save them. While it is certainly possible that Mare Nostrum could galvanize potential migrants, it is far more likely that people would be making this trek regardless. Given that the UN has been publishing reports on migrant smuggling by sea for years, it seems highly unlikely that the issue of people fleeing from North Africa has only come about because of Mare Nostrum. However, the influx of migrants making the journey is inherently tied to the on-going insecurity, despite claims otherwise. The issue of people making the illicit journey to Europe fundamentally exists at the intersection between human rights and border security, with a variety of other factors influencing policy.
Caught in an awkward miscommunication, in mid October, only a couple weeks before it was announced by the Italian Government that Mare Nostrum was officially ending, the Executive Director of Frontex, Gil Arias Fernandez, reaffirmed that Triton would not replace Mare Nostrum, and added “The agency and the European Union cannot be a substitute for member states’ responsibility in controlling their borders: we will provide support.” Operation Triton’s primary aim is border security and surveillance though “saving lives will remain an absolute priority for Frontex” according to Fernandez. That said, he paradoxically added, “but the Agency’s mandate is to control borders, we do not do search and rescue.” With less than a 1/3 of the budget Mare Nostrum had, it is unlikely Triton will be able to provide the humanitarian assistance that human rights activists are calling for.
Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director, John Dalhuisen, said, “Frontex’s Triton operation does not begin to meet the needs of thousands of migrants and refugees, including those forced to flee war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. The suggestion that it could replace Mare Nostrum could have catastrophic and deadly consequences in the Mediterranean.”
So far there have been close to 3000 migrants who have drowned while crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe this year. Violent smugglers are still at large, vulnerable migrants increasingly continue to make the treacherous journey, and the business of human trafficking shows no sign of slowing down. Dropping Mare Nostrum in favour of supporting an operation with a different mandate, and dwarfed budget, while expecting it to achieve the same results is simply going to further jeopardize the lives of those who are trying to flee their war-torn countries.
The rapid increase is driven by a variety of both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. The devastating civil war in Syria, the threat of militant extremism expansion in the region, and a lack of economic opportunities all provide substantial motivation for people across the North African region to flee. Europe is an attractive destination for those affluent enough to afford the trip, meaning that the region’s poorest and most vulnerable are moving en masse to neighbouring states with their own security issues to address. States like Jordan are now suffering from massive migration from conflict states, with refugee camps like the Za’atari Camp exceeding its maximum capacity by thousands of people, and becoming both Jordan’s fifth largest city by population, as well as a hotbed for crime and violence. Jordan has opened a second camp to relieve these pressures, and is in the process of building a third, contingent on international aid to support the initiative.
Europeans have a choice to make. They can either work towards saving migrants who will otherwise drown in the ocean, or they can invest in their own border security to further the idea of Fortress Europe. With limited resources the choice is not necessarily a case of ‘either/or’, but is more accurately understood as which side of the coin to favour. Nuanced solutions do exist, but they are not being implemented, and that is having a direct impact on both the lives of Europeans as well as the lives of the migrants at risk.
Part Two examines the impact of migrant immigration on Europeans facilities, transit countries, and the criminal networks involved in smuggling.