Migration to Europe: The lesser of two evils?

Stories about small ill-equipped fishing boats overcrowded with refugees have long captured the public and political imagination

Asma Ajroudi
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As new details of the recent deadly shipwreck tragedy, dubbed “the deadliest ever in the Mediterranean” and a “genocide,” continue to emerge, Europe’s rigid immigration policies have come under the spotlight.

Approximately 850 asylum seekers, including many children, drowned onboard a three-deck fishing trawler on Saturday near the coast of Libya, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR. Among those on board were 350 Eritreans, as well as people from Syria, Somalia, Ethiopia, and other African countries.

Stories about small ill-equipped fishing boats overcrowded with refugees, young men scaling fences, and corpses washing up on European beaches, have captured the public and political imagination since the late 1990s when Europe increased its external border control.

And those who make it safely to Europe are most likely to end up in detention centers in countries like Italy and Malta, home to Europe’s strictest detention policy. Media reports and rights groups have often criticized the inadequate living conditions and extensive duration of detention in some of these centers in Europe.

Survivors often bring to light tales of horror, torture, hunger, and mistreatment by human-traffickers who continue to exploit the power vacuum caused by the prolonged conflict in Libya and other hostile areas.

The few survivors of Saturday’s tragedy told investigators how the African and Asian migrants, had waited up to a month in Libya for the boat to set sail for Europe. One said he had suffered a beating at the hands of people traffickers, according to Reuters.

Up to one million Sub-Saharan migrants and Syrian refugees are still waiting in Libya to start a new life in Europe, according to the EU’s border agency Frontex.

‘Awful’ conditions

Joseph Willits, parliamentary and events officer at the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Al Arabiya News: “Many will arrive to poor conditions in detention centers and ill treatment, but this will be seen as the best option in a whole host of awful scenarios.

“In many cases, people willing to make the perilous journey to Europe by land and sea will be under no illusions that their life afterwards will be perfect,” said Willits.

People arriving in Europe will be able to access better healthcare, said Willits, adding that many migrants will be suffering “from serious medical conditions and disorders, aside from those sustained on the journey.”

Migrants are seen on the shore in the eastern Aegean island of Rhodes, Geece on Monday, April 20, 2015. (AP)
Migrants are seen on the shore in the eastern Aegean island of Rhodes, Geece on Monday, April 20, 2015. (AP)

“Their personal security will be greatly improved in much of Europe. Just being able to access some of the basic services will be seen as preferable to remaining in conflict zones,” he added.

But as the tragedies in the waters between Libya and Italy multiply every week, rights groups are calling on the European Union to review its immigration policies.

“European governments, whose policies have contributed to this trend cannot absolve themselves of their responsibility to save the lives of those desperate enough to attempt the crossing,” said Elisa de Pieri, a researcher on Europe at Amnesty International.

More than 36,000 refugees and migrants have reached southern Europe by sea this year so far - and if this week’s death toll is confirmed - at least 1,600 have died, according UNHCR.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) puts the number of migrant deaths in 2015 so far at 30 times last year’s total during this period.

Lack of alternatives

“There is a lack of alternatives for people fleeing war, persecution and violence,” said de Pieri.

Since the start of the uprising in 2011, Syria has been the largest exporter of refugees fleeing war and inadequate living conditions in Syria’s neighboring countries and Egypt.

When it comes to the Syrian crisis, European countries have offered limited resettlement and humanitarian admission places for Syrian refugees, said de Pieri, highlighting that just over 40,000 places were offered by the 28 European Union countries between 2013 and 2014, and just over 186,000 asylum claims were received between 2012 and 2014.

“These are small numbers compared to the 3.9 million refugees registered in neighboring countries.”

“The insecurity pushing people out of their countries of origin, or neighboring host countries, combined with the sealing off of land routes by European governments, and the unwillingness to offer sufficient safe and regular routes are driving refugees and migrants to take the perilous sea route,” she added.

EU leaders are due to meet on Thursday, to flesh out a 10-point action plan for dealing with the unprecedented influx of migrants, including increasing finances for EU rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

But the increase of illegal migrants and prospective asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa are also being met with heavy criticism from conservative politicians.

Far-right politicians in Italy, a country struggling with a five-year recession, argue that a policy of rescuing migrants at sea would only encourage human trafficking in Libya.

Roberto Maroni, the governor of Italy’s Lombardy told the Telegraph: “Here, as in Veneto (a neighboring region that includes Venice) there is zero space.”

“We cannot be subjected to this invasion,” he added.

But the debate around migration in Europe is “highly charged” and protecting migrants “is not a matter of choice,” said de Pieri.

“Half of those coming by sea are refugees and asylum seekers who must be given protection. It is an obligation for European governments. European governments should also try to adopt migration policies which reflect in a more realistic way the demand for labor of their economies, to avoid irregular migrants being subjected to labor exploitation and having to enter the EU irregularly.”

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