Conflict and Instability Drive Renewed Swell of Mediterranean Migrants

Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 26, 2015
A boat carrying migrant workers and Libyans from Tripoli arrives at the Lampedusa port, escorted by the coastguard  © Kate Thomas/IRIN

The year 2015 is off to an ominous start on the Mediterranean Sea, where at least 300 sub-Saharan migrants died last week in a failed attempt to reach Europe from Libya; the Italian coast guard rescued a further 1,100 migrants. This comes after record numbers — approximately 218,000 people — made the crossing in 2014, and 3,500 lost their lives, according to UNHCR.

“The Mediterranean has gone from being a route mainly involving migrants to being a major route for refugees fleeing war,” notes UNHCR, with Syrians making up the largest population arriving in Italy — around 22% of the total. Nonetheless, Syrian asylum-seekers in Europe only account for a small fraction (around 6%) of the rapidly growing population of approximately 3.8 million Syrian refugees spread mainly across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. These host countries have struggled to meet the growing needs of these refugees as the Syrian crisis has become more protracted, leading some to seek out other migration routes. Escalating violence and instability in Libya have made the country a prime point of departure for smugglers of migrants and refugees fleeing Syria as well as other situations of conflict and instability in the Middle East and Africa.

“There can be no doubt left after this week's events that Europe's Operation Triton [border patrol mission] is a woefully inadequate replacement for Italy's Mare Nostrum,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in reference to the disbanded emergency patrol mission operated by Italy last fall. “The focus has to be about saving lives. We need a robust search-and-rescue operation in the Central Mediterranean, not only a border patrol,” furthered Guterres.

While border patrol and search-and-rescue can help save lives, these measures are unlikely to stem the tide of undocumented migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Rather, it requires addressing the drivers of displacement. As noted in an ATHA blog post last September, “addressing the surge in irregular migration will ultimately require getting at its root causes: conflict, violence, persecution, instability and extreme poverty in many regions of the world.”

Acknowledging that political solutions are ultimately required for the resolution of ongoing armed conflicts, much can be done in the interim to improve humanitarian protection along the pathway of conflict migration from countries of origin to transit and destination countries. In “source” countries, there is a need to fill serious gaps in humanitarian protection exacerbating displacement. In conflict-torn Syria, for instance, the arbitrary denial of humanitarian access by the regime and growing threat to civilians and aid workers posed by ISIS militants has led to a deteriorating humanitarian situation.

For those who have fled to neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, there is a need for more durable solutions to mitigate the effects of migration on vulnerable populations. Granted, these host countries are already doing a lot for refugee populations, yet more progress is required to address refugees’ rehabilitation needs beyond emergency assistance, including opportunities for resettlement and integration in the region with access to employment, education, accommodations, psycho-social support, medical care and other services. This will require the mediation of significant political dilemmas preventing further resettlement efforts locally, as well as international assistance for these already-strained receiving countries.

For European countries further afield yet increasingly becoming destinations for the displaced, migrant deaths on the Mediterranean highlight the need not only for further engagement in international diplomatic efforts at conflict mediation and humanitarian response – helping to address the root causes of displacement and their intermediate consequences – but also filling the legal protection gaps for displaced persons unable to find humanitarian protection elsewhere. This will likely require creating more official refugee resettlement places, and fairer and more effective EU asylum and migration practices, creating safer and legal alternatives for conflict migrants as a last resort when other means of humanitarian protection fail.

Furthermore, the development of protection strategies for conflict migrants remains thwarted by a lack of technical data on who is being displaced, where, why and how. An improved technical response is thus needed for understanding and addressing conflict migration along the pathway from origin to receiving countries – long before desperate individuals board these dangerous boats.

Conflict migration has brought hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people on a perilous journey across the Mediterranean; now it is the responsibility of the international community as a whole to address the crises driving their search for safety on Europe’s shores.

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