On Saturday, Apr. 20, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 800 people died when their ship, which was headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa, capsized off the coast of Libya. The vessel overturned when passengers rushed to flag down a Portuguese ship. Only 28 of those passengers lived.
Shipwrecks of this sort occur regularly in the Mediterranean. Last year almost 5,000 people died trying to get to Europe by way of smugglers, and more people attempt to make the trek regularly. Some of these people were fleeing political subjugation and violence. Many had officially been declared refugees by the United Nations but decided that the wait for safe and legal transport would take too long. In 2014, about 67,000 refugees were Syrians escaping from their country’s civil war and indiscriminate violence. Others were fleeing from the totalitarian regime in Eritrea, the war in Mali and the conflict in Libya.
Currently, many migrants are attempting to escape poverty, and their aim is to be hired in Europe. A survivor from the recent wreck is a Bangladeshi man; if he were to get a job in Europe doing the same work that he performed in his home country, his wages would increase by 400 percent.
However, crossing the mediterranean costs about $10,000. Many migrants pay as much as possible then use labor to pay the rest of the travel costs, making them human trafficking victims by definition. This labor often includes manning the ship or navigating despite the fact that most of these people have no sailing experience.
The number of persons migrating to this area has increased dramatically due to the eruptions of violence in Libya and the government’s responses to these actions. When Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya, the government had an agreement with Italy, which stated that ships of refugees would be turned back to Libya. After the coup d’etat that took Gaddafi out of power, this deal dissolved, as immigration was not as high of a priority for the succeeding government. Now as more people are trying to leave Libya, the problem has both gotten larger and out of control. Additionally, the number of refugees from Syria has risen dramatically.
The trip from the African coast to Italy is about 70 miles. However, the ships that the smugglers use are more like shoddy rafts, and they are overloaded with people. When traveling, the goal of the ships is not always to make it to the coast. Rather, migrants hope to be seen and rescued by another boat, which is obligated to help the ship under international law. However, migrants cannot always catch the attention of a rescuing ship, and they often end up capsizing.
The Italian government had been working under its own policy to rescue migrant ships under operation “Mare Nostrum.” However, the European Union’s immigration agency, Frontex, replaced Mare Nostrum last fall. Since then, the budget and personnel for this work have been significantly reduced. Frontex policy has been to stop making great rescue efforts, arguing that this would make migrants less likely to make the journey.
The European Commission has been working on a strategy to deal with the issue. According to a statement it released, it plans to focus on improving conditions in the countries people are leaving.
“The only way to truly change the reality is to address the situation at its roots. For as long as there is war and hardship in our neighborhood near and far, people will continue to seek a safe haven on European shores. And as long as countries of origin and transit do not take action to prevent these desperate trips, people will continue to put their lives at risk.”
On Apr. 20, the Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council released a ten point action plan concerning migration. Many of these points were more focused on immediate action in the area. These points included:
1. Increasing funding to organizations, like Frontex, so that more intervention is possible
2. Destroying the vessels used by smugglers
3. Increasing communication between the immigration and homeland organizations EUROPOL, FRONTEX, EASO and EUROJUST
4. Increasing the number of people who can process asylum applications in Italy and Greece
5. Having states fingerprint and identify immigrants
6. Work on relocation options
7. A project from the EU that will focus on resettlement and protection of migrants
8. Establishing a return program for irregular immigrants (those who were smuggled in)
9. Working with countries surrounding Libya to prevent dangerous migration
10. Deploying officers in “key third countries” to gather intelligence and strengthen role of EU delegations in those countries.
These points were created to handle the situation in the present as well as to find a permanent and lasting solution for the migration crisis. However, this is likely to challenge an international body like the UN as it aims to control and modify actions in different countries, especially since a definitive governing body is not present in all of these countries.