EU leaders must toughen response to Mediterranean crisis

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Migrant food seller, Catania. Sicily, December 2014. [ Sarah Tzinieris/Flickr]

The EU is finally waking up to the desperate crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and tomorrow’s extraordinary Council summit is a step towards dealing with its consequences, writes Mirjam van Reisen.

Dr Mirjam van Reisen is Professor of International Social Responsibility at Tilburg University, Director of Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA), a Member of the Dutch Government Council on International Affairs and Chair of the Development Cooperation Commission.

The European Council is expected to formulate a coherent European response to the continuing humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean on April 23. The tragic deaths of more than 1,000 men, women and children as well as the recognition that the situation is spiralling out of control, seem to have finally alerted Europe to the scale of the crisis. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice-President of the European Commission, along with her staff, deserve commendation for their determination and commitment to get things moving.

The European Council will work on the results of the 10-point plan of immediate measures agreed by European Foreign and Interior Ministers. Although European member states are notoriously poor at respecting any of the decisions made and commitments given, one can only hope that these measures will now be implemented as a matter of urgency.

It is remarkable that there is still no indication of who will take the lead on any issue, when it will be implemented, and where the budget will come from.

One can only hope that the European Commission does its homework and presents a concrete implementation plan that can be agreed at the highest level on 23 April. But even if it does this, the 10-point plan can only be a very modest start. Given the enormity of the crisis, these are only half measures that can easily fail. Additional measures need to be agreed to provide a response that is equal to the scale of the crisis. In view of this, the European Council meeting offers a unique opportunity for action.

These are the additional measures that are needed as a priority:

  • Get a true European search and rescue operation underway. Increasing the Triton operation by doubling its budget to 6 million euros is totally insufficient. It will not even be a pale imitation of operation Mare Nostrum that was launched by the Italian government with great success last year. A European Mare Nostrum could be put in place in a matter of weeks and the Frontex Border Agency should immediately present plans for such an operation.
  • Boost the international protection capacity of a number of African countries. With sufficient effort and humanitarian support, it would be possible to provide shelter for 2 million people in need of international protection in a number of African countries, including in the Horn of Africa. Efforts should also be made to assist those countries that are already hosting large numbers of refugees, in particular the countries surrounding Syria. The humanitarian efforts should be stepped up to ensure sustainable support for the nearly 4 million refugees presently in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
  • Establish a multiannual resettlement program that would bring a minimum of 200,000 people to be safety settled over the next three years. The UNHCR estimates that over 400,000 people are in need of resettlement; the current EU proposal to resettle 5,000 people is shamefully inadequate. It is a total denial of the humanitarian needs right at Europe’s doorstep.
  • As an immediate priority, the 11,000 vulnerable refugees that are on the UNHCR priority list, and have already been screened by the refugee agency and do not pose a security threat, should be brought to safety in EU member states.

Security and stability

The humanitarian crisis now confronting the EU has an international dimension. But with eight out of the 10 measures agreed so far being of an EU internal nature, this list is incomplete and denies the true nature of the problem. One issue that is currently absent from this list is what to do about Libya. Foreign Ministers did not touch on this issue, nor is it reflected anywhere in the proposed measures. This is not because ministers are naïve, but because it is too tricky. If the EU wants to have a policy that stands any chance of success it has to be confronted. This means that the EU must launch an initiative to stabilise Libya and deal with the militias and terrorist groups.

Only in this way, the Union can act against the smugglers and criminal gangs that make serious profits from putting people on rickety boats, without caring whether they will make it to Europe or not. In this sense, the Mediterranean crisis should also be a wake-up call about the security issues the EU has to deal with in the 21st century. Any suggestion that the situation can be resolved by simply capturing and destroying the vessels used by Libyan smugglers, without robust military backup, is completely unrealistic.

In addition, a support programme for North African countries should be designed to help these countries cope with the large inflow of migrants and assist them to repatriate stranded migrants to their countries of origin. North African countries should be given the means to patrol their harbours and territorial waters, by providing them with rapid patrol boats and search and rescue equipment. Merchant ships and fishing boats that take on board refugees should be given financial compensation and publicly praised for their actions.

A wider international initiative: call a Mediterranean Summit

The war in Syria is not over and the conflicts and crises in Africa continue with no prospect of an end in sight. For the foreseeable future the international community can count on an ever-increasing flow of people seeking international protection. Although valiant efforts are now under way, it is important to recognise that the forces at work and the issues concerned go way beyond the European Union. The stability of several African countries is at stake; security issues need to be addressed and there is a real danger of terrorists exploiting any chaos that might ensue.

There is an urgent need for the wider international community to take the initiative and to discuss how to address these fundamental issues. To this end, the EU should immediately issue a call for an International Mediterranean Summit. The Summit should bring together all the EU’s member states, as well as all the countries of North Africa, other African counties receiving large numbers of refugees from the Syria conflict, the African Union, Turkey, the USA, Canada, and Australia, as well as representatives from the Council of Europe and civil society. Only this kind of intensified international cooperation can lead to a more tangible, effective and coherent answer to the Mediterranean crisis in all of its dimensions.

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