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A Humanitarian Crisis On EU Borders

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About The Author

Rebecca Von Blumenthal (Former Regular Writer)

Rebecca graduated from King's College London in July 2014 with a 2.1 LLB with European Legal Studies. Rebecca has a deep-rooted interest in human rights, criminal law, public law and clinical negligence. Her desire to scrutinise and proliferate accurate information concerning these topics has lead her to pursue a career combining writing with law reform on a practical and significant level.

The number of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach European shores on unseaworthy and overcrowded boats has reached a disastrous high: the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) states that 1,725 people have died so far in 2015 alone, compared to just 56 by the same point in time in 2014. Just over 800 of these deaths occurred in a single shipwreck, making April the deadliest month on record. They flee from conflicts, persecution and poverty in their own countries – the gravity of which may be difficult to comprehend, but which is clear when the potentially fatal gamble of these sea crossings is deemed a preferable alternative. 

The contentious issue of immigration often reveals an ugly side to international politics, depicting certain countries (the UK included) as narrow and inward-looking. With no collective EU immigration policy in place and no treaty to govern burden-sharing or set minimal standards of migrant integration and treatment, we must rely on dubious national policies, such as the vulnerable persons relocation scheme for Syrian nationals (although launched in January 2014, only 174 Syrian refugees have been accepted). At the moment, such policies are simply not enough and the EU is failing to take responsibility for correcting the irrational and unproductive debate about migration into Europe.

A Dead Goat is Not Afraid of a Knife

The number of people attempting to migrate to Europe has fluctuated quite significantly over the years, but ultimately there has been a dramatic increase in the number of asylum-seekers from North Africa, fuelled by ongoing unrest in their home countries. However, whereas the primary cause of migration on the western African route relates to drug trafficking, the central and lethal Mediterranean route (the sea passage between Northern Africa and Italy and Malta) shows people fleeing from extreme violence and human rights abuses. The violations that migrants experience before they are even subjected to the dangers at sea are extensive and deplorable.  Inside war-torn Libya, the lack of rule of law and basic law enforcement allows the smuggling networks to thrive: according to estimates in a February UN report, human trafficking from Libya across the Mediterranean generated $170 million in 2014.  Yet the multiplying tales of death at sea have done nothing to diminish demand.

Due to Libya’s proximity to the south of Europe, it continues to act as the point of entry to the continent. The sharp increase in numbers of migrants in 2011, driven by the forcible expulsion of many Libyans at the hands of the Gaddafi regime, created a huge spike in the number of migrants to more than 64,000. Now, in 2015, the EU is experiencing its largest influx of migrants into one country (Italy) in history.

The EU and its Member State governments must act to bring change and relief to suffering countries such as Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan in order to improve living standards and combat the oppression that leads to people deciding to risk their lives in order to seek freedom. Until the EU exercises the effective power to secure such advances, the situation will not change and the callous traffickers will continue to be enriched. With political will, Member States must show mercy and a commitment to progress. However, the current legislation is not structured to support such an attitude, and so such progress will be no easy feat.

The Instability of the Dublin Regulation

The Dublin Regulation is an EU law establishing that only one EU Member State may be responsible for the examination of an asylum application from an applicant seeking international protection under the Geneva Convention within the EU. It operates on a hierarchy of criteria for identifying the responsible Member State, predominantly based on family links, but also states that refugees must claim asylum in the first EU country they enter.

Whether the Dublin Regulation is working is rather doubtful. The growing use of detention to enforce transfers of asylum seekers, the denial of an effective opportunity to appeal against transfers and the separation of families are all regular problems. For example, in the 2011 European Court of Human Rights case M.S.S. v Belgium & Greece, the Court ruled that Belgium had violated Articles 3 (prohibiting torture, and inhuman or degrading punishment) and 13 (the right to an effective remedy before a national authority) of the European Convention on Human Rights by sending asylum seekers back to Greece under the Dublin Regulation. The Court ruled that Belgium was in violation of Article 3 for exposing the applicant, an Afghan national, to risks arising from the deficiencies of the asylum procedure in Greece, and in violation of Article 13 because of the lack of an effective remedy against the Dublin decision.

The migration pressures experienced by Member States at external borders of Europe, particularly Italy and Greece, are disproportionately high, rendering such Member States least able to offer support and protection to asylum seekers. These sentiments were echoed by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, during the April special meeting of the European Council, initiated by the joint letter to EU leaders signed by more than 50 former European prime ministers, foreign ministers and business leaders, condemning the death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean.

Merkel claimed that under the current system, five Member States account for the acceptance of three-quarters of all asylum seekers. This is exacerbated as a result of the border-free Schengen Area enabling citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks; the burden on Germany has increased despite the Dublin Regulation. Indeed, in 2014 Germany accepted 40,560 asylum applications at first instance, whilst the UK accepted just 10,050 during the same period. As a proportion of their respective populations, the difference is quite significant.

The Special Meeting: Renewed Efforts?

Aside from rendering the Dublin Regulation futile, the summit revealed a pledge to triple funding of marine operations in the Mediterranean in an attempt to reduce migrant drownings. This comes as a direct consequence of the replacement of the Mare Nostrum sea-rescue operation with the Triton surveillance operation run by EU’s border agency, Frontex. Operation Mare Nostrum saved around 170,000 lives last year, but in October 2014, politicians said they felt they could save more by ending it, and that such large scale search-and-rescue missions simply encouraged more people to try and enter Europe. However, it is notable that the number of migrants has only increased since October.

Although operation Triton is significantly cheaper (€3m a month compared to €9m) as it focuses only on EU waters, the scale of last month’s tragedy gave the EU leaders fresh impetus for change, and it was agreed that the monthly budget for Triton was to be increased to €9m a month.

This is welcome news to those who express concerns for migrants' welfare, but perhaps should not be celebrated too hastily. In addition to increasing the financial resources of operation Triton, the European Council laid out three further priorities:

  1. Fight traffickers in accordance with international law;
  2. Prevent illegal migration flows; and
  3. Reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility by introducing migrant quotas.

Alongside these priorities, the European Commission has proposed a migration policy to be discussed at the end of June. This policy would organise legal means by which migrants could come to Europe so they do not turn to traffickers, and introduce quotas. The quotas are intended to spread applicants for refugee status more evenly across the EU Member States, based on the country’s population, economic indicators and the number of asylum seekers previously accepted.

The proposals put forward by the European Commission could still be rejected by the European Council or the European Parliament. The UK could decide to opt in to the scheme but is not compelled to join. Justice and home affairs policies set by the EU are not obligatory, and this includes asylum decisions.  Therefore, although the priorities look promising on paper, the reality may be problematic, as the UK particularly, rolls up its sleeves in defiance.

What the Future Holds: Compulsory Migrant Quotas?

As previously highlighted, there are currently no treaties that govern burden-sharing or set standards for the treatment offered to third-country migrants. As immigration is an individual state responsibility, political barriers hinder paths to fruition; it does not seem likely that an EU member would surrender control over non-EU immigration to a new EU body.

The move to impose migrant quotas on EU Member States has not been received well by the Conservative government. Prime Minister David Cameron stated at the summit that Britain will not accept any more asylum seekers, arguing that adequate support has been provided by its large overseas aid and defence budget. Indeed, HMS Bulwark recently rescued 400 migrants from inflatable boats, suffering from injuries and dehydration. However if a Common European Asylum System is to be implemented by all participating Member States, ensuring ‘common European standards under existing legislation’, then the UK, as an EU member with a large population and economic stability, would be expected to allow in a proportion of refugees.

Home secretary Teresa May argued that a quota obliging European states to take a greater share of migrants would ‘encourage those at the mercy of “evil” people traffickers.’ In the first days of office, the new Government have already set out their position on the proposal, with the front page of the Times stating that ‘Brussels forces Britain to accept Med migrants.’ Two days later, May reinforced the Conservatives’ position that ‘the UK will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation.’ Such sentiments indicate that the proposals show unsteady signs of enforcement and are likely to create deep divisions across the EU.

The curious and tentative line between anti-immigration political parties on the one hand and media reportage of the humanitarian crisis of desperate people drowning on the other is exposing unfavourable views; a column in which Katie Hopkins described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’ incited the UN High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, to issue a strongly worded statement, as discussed in this recent KCTL article. If the UK continues to exemplify a lack of public and political solidarity with other EU border nations, hope for an improved situation and actual progress is dramatically reduced.

What the Future Holds: Military Attack

In order for the European Agenda on Migration to become law, it will need to get approval from a majority of EU governments. If the UK decides to opt in to the refugee resettlement plan, the Commission estimates that it would need to accept 2,309 (11.5%) of the 20,000 total proposed. However, the UK is bluntly refusing a mandatory system of resettlement, and the only alternative action proposed has been military attack.

The EU plan to seek and destroy the boats used by people traffickers to ferry migrants from the Libyan coast to the shores of Europe must receive United Nations backing. The draft resolution calls for the use of all means to destroy the business model of the traffickers. If approved, European troops would be authorised to conduct military operations not only in international waters, but also in Libya’s territorial waters and on Libyan soil under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which authorises the use of force; this includes the use of British military force.

The plan raises a host of difficult legal and diplomatic issues. Firstly, there are doubts whether Moscow will approve the EU plan, and as Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council (charged with the maintenance of international peace and security), it has the right of veto and may prevent the EU from receiving the requisite UN backing for their international military operations. Secondly, Libya’s UN ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbash, opposes the mission, as he claims that the Libyan government were not consulted by the EU and have not been told what kind of military actions are to take place. Finally, the militia that controls Tripoli has promised to ‘confront’ any EU moves.

The military plans proposed yet again seem to be skirting the substantial issue in hand. Efforts to deter smuggling by the use of military action will be in vain if matters of overly restrictive migration policies in Europe, the source of conflicts, human rights violations and economic deprivations are not separately addressed. Therefore European governments are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, they can offer a safe passage of migrants to Europe and distribute them among Member States to deal with their asylum claims, which would in effect amount to ‘safe’ corridors between Libya and Europe; on the other hand, the use of military force to sink boats will conceivably result in the price of a seat rising and more unseaworthy vessels being put to use.


The crisis confronts Europe with many difficult questions, and the way they are answered will play a big part in the way its members see the EU. While certain successful rescue operations undertaken should not be overlooked, it is crucial to assert the need for urgent humanitarian and compassionate action by the EU to address the causes and the effects of the tragedy that shows no signs of ceasing. It is time to recognise and accept that the Italian, Greek and Spanish maritime rescuers need much more EU solidarity, and a fairer system of distributing refugees around the EU should be accepted.

If the UK is being put in the same category as Hungary, a leading hardliner on immigration who also refuses to take part in the migrant distribution plan, something is clearly not right. Their naval efforts on the Mediterranean and their generous contribution to aiding Syrian refugees is commendable, but politics is standing in the way to finding a common approach motivated by humanity and compassion.

The focus on smuggling rings and military action seems to be a distraction; the real issue is how to offer the migrants a chance to seek asylum in Europe, rather than return them to countries where they would face persecution. It has already been made clear that sending migrants back and reducing rescue plans is no deterrent.  There is a much larger issue at play here; denying and rejecting the reality of the situation is not improving things on either side of the Mediterranean. It is time that the issues on the other end – where the migrants come from, and why – are approached with more strategic solutions in mind, in which the EU and its Member States engage in a comprehensive dialogue with these African countries about the causes of migration.

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Tagged: European Union, Human Rights, Immigration

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