From shore to shore: regional collapse and human insecurity

Rescued migrants at Catania. Demotix/Vincenzo Barbagallo. All rights reserved.On April 15, 1912 a cruise liner set sail from England to
New York City. As is widely known, it collided en route with an iceberg and
since has forever been immortalised; books have been written, movies made, and
recovery expeditions launched. What is striking is that whilst 1,517 people
died on the Titanic, more than 1,700 have died already this year in the
Mediterranean. The deaths in the Titanic have been recalled countlessly, but
they also remind us about the way the class system played itself out in life
and death – status determining who lived, and who were left to die.

A century later, we see something of the same but on a much
larger, geopolitical, scale. Here it is not class playing itself out directly,
but North-South relations, race and ethnicity, the failures of western foreign
policy, and the problematic role national borders still play as fences and
walls in an increasingly globalised world. But all that will be remembered from
the current Mediterranean crisis, most likely, is the shocking number of
deaths; the individuals and families in question appearing just as statistics.

Migration from North Africa to Europe is certainly not a new
trend.  For years the Mediterranean has
been a thoroughfare for migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe. Whilst
migrants have started their journeys from many African countries, they are
typically bound by a common goal to escape persecution, to flee conflict, and
to find greater economic and social opportunities. However, there are notable
differences in migration patterns over the last few years.

First, there has been a generalised increase of
would-be-migrants attempting to reach Europe. Second, there has been a dramatic
rise in the departures that travel via the Central Mediterranean route. In
fact, the EU Border Agency, Frontex, estimates that between 2013 and 2014 there
was a 277% increase (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1: 2013-2014 Increase in Migration Flows (Frontex 2015 Annual Risk Report)Across the board it is clear that migration is increasing,
but nowhere more dramatically than from Libya. From figure 2 below, one can see
the apparent correlation between migration flows through the Central
Mediterranean and the regional instability in North Africa.

2011 was a period of optimism and migration from Libya
declined; but it has been exponentially rising since. The majority of the
migrants are not Libyan per se. Rather, the greatest number of migrants to date
have originated from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. The instability and chaos that
grips Libya has created a vacuum for armed groups, smugglers, gangsters and
human traffickers to operate at will; hence, Libya has become the dominant
point of departure for many.

Figure 2: Migration Route Trends (Frontex in BBC)When the UN authorised the intervention in Libya through Resolution
1973, the aspects of military engagement were focused on a no-fly-zone as
well as the protection of civilians. What actually happened, of course, was
something very different – the intervention quickly shifted to toppling the
regime and Gaddafi was swiftly ousted as a result. What was then celebrated and
hailed as a victory has now led to a Libya
utterly fractured along sectarian lines, with no semblance of a functioning
state and rampant human rights abuses.

There is now little room for debate about the results of
western intervention in Libya. Of course, Libya is part of a larger pattern of
failed western intervention post-9/11. All of these wars
were ill-conceived, poorly operationalised, short sighted and the product of
western hubris. In some part, these were also opportunistic wars, whereby
western politicians clamoured for war in order to shore up their own domestic
positions. The record, however, is clear: the region is now more unstable and
insecure than ever before, and Libya in particular is a broken country.

What we now see in the Mediterranean migration crisis is in
many respects an extension of western failure in two ways. First, the failed
intervention created the instability that led to the Central Mediterranean
route becoming so popular as a passage to Europe. Second, the European
countries scaled back recovery efforts just at a time when they were needed the
most. From late 2013 to November/December 2014 the Italian government ran a
relatively effective operation called Mare Nostrum, during which time more than
migrants were rescued at sea.

However, the operation was costly at €9 million a month, and
Italy cancelled it at the end of 2014 claiming that it was unsustainable
without more EU financial backing. At the time, the debate within the EU
amounted to little more than denials of responsibility and justifications for
inaction. British Foreign Office Minister, Lady
Anelay, went so far as to say at the time that ‘we do not support planned
search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean’; and that search and rescue
operations created ‘an unintended “pull factor”’ encouraging more

In place of Mare Nostrum the EU launched the much-scaled
back operation Triton. Under Mare
Nostrum the Italian Navy carried out search and rescue operations across
27,000 miles of the Mediterranean. Under Triton, the mandate only covered
border surveillance within 30 miles of the Italian coast. The EU budget for
Triton was only a third of what was spent on Mare Nostrum. To those who paid
attention at the time, this was a huge, bright, waving red flag. Human rights
groups and migration experts warned,
with virtual consensus, that this would lead to a much larger migration crisis
with many more deaths in the Mediterranean. Enter, today. This was not a crisis
that came out of the blue; it was not an unexpected shock; it was anticipated
and predicted – yet these warnings fell on deaf ears and now we see the

In the face of renewed crisis the EU has initiated
discussions about how to address the Mediterranean migrant dilemma. On April
29, the EU Council released its summary
of their four-day, 28 country talks. The agenda moving forward can be
summarised three-fold: confront and prevent smugglers and human traffickers;
triple the financial resources for EU border operations including the increase
of ships and other necessary capacity; and enhance refugee protection. For the
latter, this includes implementing
a ‘Common European Asylum
System to ensure the same standards in all Member States, an increase of
emergency aid to front-line Member States, and the deployment of support teams
to help process asylum claims’.

If the EU can reinstate effective search and rescue
operations it will go a long way towards mitigating the escalating tragedy in
the Mediterranean. However, it would be a mistake to consider the matter closed
and problem solved, even if the EU is able to bring casualties to zero.

Upon close inspection of the EU’s action plan, it is clear
that it is driven primarily by exclusionary regional interest. What can be
called ‘containment policies’ are there to manage and control migration into
Europe. These are policies that, whilst having a humanitarian veneer, radically
exacerbate the burdens of migrants and displaced persons from and in countries
like Libya, Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, alike.

Recent reports
detail how some migrants waiting to set sail off the shores of Libya are kept
in cages in a zoo, how they are tortured, and how women are often forced into
prostitution. This is the fate of those waiting to leave and one that will
likely be imposed on many more if/when EU’s new containment policies begin to
have an effect. Stefan Kessler, senior policy officer with the Jesuit Refugee
Service, captures
the underlying motive behind the EU’s new approach: ‘Keep protection-seekers
far, far away from Europe so that their deaths don’t make the headlines in
European media’.

The needs of those crossing the Mediterranean must be met;
the search and rescue operations must be bolstered and given adequate support;
lives must be protected. But we should not pretend that this solves the
problem. Rather, these necessary measures are treating a symptom of a much
bigger, much more difficult problem. 
Since the end of the Cold War forced migration has taken on a new shape
as patterns of conflict have shifted. The combination of increased civil
conflict, military interventions, and western containment policies has led to
the dramatic rise of forced migration overall, and internally displaced persons
(IDPs) in particular – would-be refugees who simply have not yet crossed an
international border.

Refugees and IDPs are two sides of the same coin, some
separated by border fences and some, in this case, by the Mediterranean. The
containment policies of the EU – basically seeking to prevent people from migrating
– will simply make things worse, not better. They will exacerbate the
widespread human insecurity stemming from civil conflicts, failed
interventions, regional collapse, and the widespread threats to human life
chances in many parts of North Africa. These are the problems – not those
desperately trying to run away from poverty and conflict in search of a
brighter future.

To be sure, these issues are much more difficult to solve.
But that does not mean they should be ignored; especially not by the self-proclaimed
human rights champions of the EU. The issue of refugees and displaced peoples
is one of the great tests of the international humanitarian ideals of the 21st
century and the cosmopolitan aspirations of a Europe shaped by the ambition to
project its soft power and good governance across the world.

However, when cosmopolitanism meets state interests under
economic pressure, the former is often cast aside. Europe, racked by the Euro
crisis, has become a sorrowful champion of humanitarian values. There is a
paradox wherein most states are cosmopolitan when it comes to championing the
ideals, but the very same states are sectarian when it comes to implementation.

There were huge steps that Europe took in the postwar period
to move from a region of bitter conflict and strife to a pacific union in which
(still) the idea of war among European countries is almost inconceivable – a
regional polity shaped by human rights, common frameworks and the rule of law.
But like in so much of European history, there are rights for citizens and
exclusions for others. This divide is constantly policed and a bridge between
these poles remains hard to build.

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