Missing Persons and Mediterranean Migration

Tens of thousands of asylum seekers risk their lives every year to reach Europe.

In the first two months of 2015 almost 8,000 people arrived in Italy following the dangerous sea crossing from North Africa. This figure was dramatically higher than the one recorded in the same period in 2014, and the number of people who did not complete the crossing was dramatically higher too. In the first two months of 2014, 15 would-be illegal immigrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean. Close to 600 are believed to have perished in January and February this year.

There is no mystery as to why more and more people are following what is now the world’s most dangerous migration route – and why so many are dying in the attempt.

Fighting in Syria, Iraq, Libya and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including Congo and Chad, has caused millions to seek asylum, first in neighboring countries and then in Europe – and in the case of Libya, now in its fourth year of instability since the revolution, Italy is an immediate neighbor.

A staple of major migrations is the corresponding expansion of lucrative business for middlemen who facilitate illegal travel and exploit illegal travelers. People-trafficking is a multi-billion dollar business, encompassing everything from the supply of false documents to slavery and murder.

There have been frequent reports of traffickers stripping migrants of money and valuables on Libyan beaches and forcing them to board unseaworthy vessels. Traffickers routinely abandon migrants mid-journey, and there have also been reports of vessels full of migrant being deliberately sunk by traffickers.

For much of 2014, Italy and other European countries responded largely on their own to the arrival of small, unregistered and unsafe vessels, Italy alone rescuing around 170,000 people. The government in Rome repeatedly called for a European response to the crisis. In November – following the deaths of more than 400 migrants in two separate sinkings in the first half of October –the EU instituted the maritime protection program, “Triton”, which has been criticized for falling short of resources previously deployed by Italy through its Mare Nostrum program. The budget for Triton is less than half of the budget for Mare Nostrum, which it replaced, and is limited to activities within 30 kilometers of the EU coastline.

Merchant vessels have stepped into the breach. In March the Wall Street Journal reported that shipping companies had diverted around 800 vessels to rescue as many as 40,000 migrants in the Mediterranean. The President of the European Community Shipowners’ Association told the paper, “We can’t take over the role of coast guard and search-and-rescue operations that are supposed to be undertaken by European states.”

The European Union has promised to present a comprehensive Mediterranean migration strategy by May 2015. There have been proposals to streamline the process of documenting migrants and establishing a more geographically diverse distribution of reception centers. Spain, Greece and especially Italy currently act as default destination countries, with corresponding social, financial and political challenges.

Italy has proposed that North African countries should be helped to develop their own capacity to address illegal maritime migration through grants and training. A related proposal involves establishing reception centers in North Africa. Both proposals have received criticism as attempts to relocate the problem to the other side of the Mediterranean.

MEP and spokesperson for the German Greens Ska Keller issued a statement at the beginning of March expressing disappointment with the European Commission’s initial paper on a European agenda on migration, noting that “The European Commission is still focusing on ‘fighting irregular migration’ and strengthening border control. This will lead to further sealing of the borders for people in need of protection. It will not prevent any tragedies in the Mediterranean. The Commission should put much more emphasis on opening up possibilities for legal and safe entry of asylum seekers to the EU.”

In March, UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres called on the EU to adopt “bold and innovative solutions”, including expanding the resources and mandate of Triton and compensating merchant shipping companies for losses incurred while rescuing people in distress at sea.

So far, apart from Triton, the European response has been largely limited to improving intelligence coordination among security and border services. In March, Europol launched Joint Operational Team Mare, which will “provide a proactive law enforcement response” to the migration crisis, according to Europol Director Rob Wainwright, and will improve the intelligence flow between the EU’s border security agency, FRONTEX, and Europol and Interpol.

In an article which appeared on 31 March on the website of the Center for International Maritime Security, Christian Bueger, Reader in International Relations at Cardiff University and an expert on maritime security, points to a series of lessons from the successful effort to contain piracy off the coast of Somalia between 2008 and 2012, which, he argues, could be applied to the issue of Mediterranean migration.

Bueger notes that an anti-piracy contact group of 80 states and organizations made it possible to develop shared understanding of what was happening, why it was happening and how it could be tackled. Adapted to Mediterranean migration, a similar initiative could help to bring North African states into a solution strategy; it would then be possible to create working groups on operations at sea, coordinate initiatives with the shipping industry, streamline criminal investigations, and harmonize legislative provisions for migration and naturalization.

Bueger also notes that the piracy problem was manifest at sea but was caused on land. As in other parts of the world, state-building was part of a long-term solution to an immediate problem. The collapse of Somalia as a functioning state created the incentive and the conditions for piracy to mushroom, and the rebuilding of Somali institutions was the key to securing a long-term reduction in piracy. Likewise, the conflicts in the Middle East and Africa – and especially the collapse of the Libyan state – will have to be addressed before the problem of illegal and dangerous maritime migration can be effectively tackled.

ICMP has been actively engaged in discussions with the UNHCR, the IOM and other international agencies that are working to address the issue of Mediterranean migration, and specifically to address the high incidence of fatalities and the large numbers of individuals who are never identified.

There is a general acknowledgement that the international community has yet to develop a coherent and effective strategy. However, individual organizations are developing plans to assess the true scale of the problem and begin to respond to the needs of the hundreds of thousands of families that are affected.

Organizations can work together to reach out to affected communities to raise awareness and gather information, including blood reference samples to be used in the identification of bodies.

Faced with a crisis of monumental proportions, the European Union and the International Community as a whole has been slow to respond. The figures in 2015 already indicate that this slow pace is likely to result in even higher fatality rates – unless realistic, timely and vigorous measures are adopted in the coming months.