Conflict Migration on the Mediterranean: An Overshadowed Humanitarian Crisis

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Coastguards help a woman fleeing Tripoli to disembark from a boat arriving at Lampedusa port  © Kate Thomas/IRIN

The number of irregular migrants crossing – and dying in – the Mediterranean Sea has surged in recent years, fueled by conflict and instability on the Sea’s southern shores. Since January, an estimated 124,380 have landed in Europe; the majority in Italy (108,172), followed by Greece, Spain and Malta. That’s over twice the number from last year (60,000), 2012 (22,500) and 2011 (69,000). While the European Union (EU) attempts to secure its borders against this influx of irregular migration, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding at its border. UNHCR recently reported that 1,889 Europe-bound migrants have drowned so far this year, with most of these deaths taking place in the last three months.  

The main departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe is Libya, according to UNHCR, “where the worsening security situation has fostered the growth of people smuggling operations, but also prompted refugees and migrants living there to decide to risk the sea rather than remain in a zone of conflict.” Human traffickers have taken advantage of this political instability and ongoing conflict, establishing Libya as a transit point for migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

In the three years since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime by a NATO-led military intervention in Libya, the country remains violent and unstable. Militant groups vie for de facto control. Last week, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias fighting in Libya. The ongoing conflict and vacuum of governmental authority in Libya has contributed to regional instability and arms proliferation across the Sahel, fueling conflict in places like Syria, Mali, Gaza, and Somalia. With Libya unable to exert control over its vast borders, the government has even threatened to “facilitate the quick passage of this flood of people through Libya” if Europe doesn’t provide greater assistance to the country.

The result is a complex humanitarian crisis, often overshadowed by talk of immigration enforcement and border security. UNHCR has called for “urgent and concerted European action including strengthened search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.” The staggering number of deaths so far this year highlights the dangers of this journey, where smugglers often crowd large numbers of people onto unseaworthy boats. After 366 people drowned off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa when their boat capsized last October, the Italian Navy and coastguard launched the “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) mission to patrol Mediterranean waters for migrants; this week, the European Commission announced that it will eventually take over. Regrettably, however, such enforcement missions often neglect humanitarian and human rights considerations.

These missions can and do save the lives of thousands of imperiled migrants, yet their primary mission is border control. That often means turning back migrants before they reach Europe’s shores. Before the Libyan Revolution, Italy and other European countries cooperated with the Gaddafi regime to enforce EU border controls – through deals that enriched Gaddafi while raising serious accusations of human rights abuses on both sides.

For one, the wave of irregular migrants crossing the Mediterranean includes many potential asylum seekers – people with recognizable grounds for temporary or permanent refugee protection. “Many of those risking their lives at sea in their attempt to find safety in Europe are refugees fleeing war, conflict, violence and persecution,” noted UNHCR Spokesperson Melissa Fleming. Many come from countries ravaged by extended civil wars, such as Syria, Mali and Somalia. Under international law, refugees have a right to protection, and cannot be forcibly returned to places where they fear violence or persecution – a foundational principle of international refugee law known as non-refoulement. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

While states have a sovereign right to control immigration to their territories, the EU cannot simply turn away irregular migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, as many have legitimate claims to protection under international law. Beyond a border enforcement approach, states must also address the humanitarian and protection needs of migrants and asylum-seekers on their borders. This includes rescue from dangerous conditions on the high seas, registration, food and shelter, medical and psychological services, and access to fair and efficient asylum procedures. Often, compliance with the principle of non-refoulement requires at least temporary admission for asylum-seekers. There is also need for greater international efforts to combat human trafficking and smuggling, international crimes that prey on vulnerable would-be migrants and refugees. More broadly, 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.

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