EU leaders have missed a real opportunity to make a serious difference in the lives and deaths of the people suffering daily in the Mediterranean, say NGOs.
Meeting on short notice for an extraordinary summit on Thursday (23 April), EU leaders decided to treble annual funding to €120 million to the Operation Triton, an EU frontier operation off of the coast of Italy, putting it at the same level of funding as the defunct Italian Mare Nostrum mission.
Among 17 proposals in a summit communiqué, leaders agreed to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”. It is unclear how that may be achieved, and several leaders said they would need a UN mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country, along with Sweden, takes in a large proportion of asylum-seekers, called for a change in the EU’s system of managing asylum claims to better distribute the pressures across the bloc.
But few governments are willing to take on a greater share, and agreements on Thursday were limited. Member states will consider a voluntary scheme to ease the burden of arrivals on “frontline” states in the south – notably Italy, Greece and Malta. And they plan a pilot project to bring in refugees from abroad and resettle them around the continent, seeking a broad distribution.
An initial draft of the statement had suggested 5,000 people be brought in under this pilot. But there was no figure in the final agreement, reflecting deep hesitation across the Union.
Weak commitment to saving lives
Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières criticised the focus by leaders on trying to quell Libya people traffickers as they once did Somali pirates: “We are amazed to see that the huge means and resources allocated to declaring war on smugglers are not equally invested in saving lives,” said Aurelie Ponthieu, an MSF humanitarian adviser.
“Focusing on keeping people out by cutting their only existing routes is only going to push people fleeing for their lives to find other routes, potentially even more dangerous.”
Europe’s leaders have missed a crucial opportunity to make a real difference in the lives and deaths of the people suffering daily in the Mediterranean, according to Oxfam. The international confederation of aid organisations regrets that instead of heeding calls to restore immediately a search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean on the model of Mare Nostrum, the EU chose to focus on its border control operation.
“There is a moral imperative to save the lives of people in peril – regardless of who they are or where they come from,” said Alessandro Bechini, Director of Oxfam’s programs in Italy.
“A truly effective European operation needs to be not only properly funded and equipped, but should also have a clear mandate to save lives as the first priority, and not be shackled by the geographical restrictions that are currently keeping the patrols of the EU’s border control mission, Operation Triton, near the Italian and Maltese coasts,” Bechini said.
“Comparing the impact of Operation Triton, as conducted by Frontex, with the previous Mare Nostrum operation is startling. By mid-April there have been 900 confirmed deaths under Triton. There were only 17 in the same period last year under Mare Nostrum,” he said.
”EU member states also have to abide by the Refugee Convention, both by the letter and by its spirit. Refugees fleeing persecution need safe and legal avenues for claiming asylum. These are principles to be upheld, not empty statements to be ignored in favour of building a more fortified Europe,” he said.
Oxfam says that poor countries all around the world are shouldering an unfair burden of millions of refugees fleeing from war, insecurity, poverty and inequality. Oxfam does not believe Europe is doing its fair share.
“Today’s decisions from Brussels are totally insufficient to resolve the deadly consequences of the mass movement of desperate people from country to country. We are missing the visionary effort and leadership that is needed to tackle the root causes that drive people away from their homes and push them to face such risks. The international community must step up its peace-building and development efforts in poor and insecure countries – or else the problems associated with mass migration will never be contained, let alone resolved,” Bechini said.
“No one should be fooled’
Amnesty International stated that the failure to extend Triton’s operational area “will fatally undermine” the promises made by EU leaders.
A planned tripling of Triton finances will not address the reality of the search and rescue needs in the Mediterranean unless the operational area is extended to the high seas where most of the deaths occur, the global organisation believes.
“Having ships in the Mediterranean only matters if they are in the right place as the deadly shortcomings of Operation Triton have demonstrated. Unless they go the full mile, migrants and refugees will continue to drown,” said Iverna McGowan acting Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office in Brussels.
“If Triton’s mandate can’t be changed, then Triton is not the solution, however many resources one gives it. Real solutions could have been agreed today. No one should be fooled. They haven’t been.”