Reactive Policies Remain Insufficient to Prevent Migrant Deaths

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

This guest blog comes to us from Professor David Polatty. David teaches military strategy, maritime security, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief at the U.S. Naval War College (NWC) in Newport, Rhode Island, and is a co-founder and co-director of the NWC College of Operational & Strategic Leadership - Harvard School of Public Health “Joint Civilian-Military Humanitarian Working Group.”

The tragic deaths of as many as 900 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea last week appear to have been a call to action for not only the European Union (EU), but the international community at large. After intense media scrutiny of this horrific event within a much wider and intensifying migration crisis, EU politicians finally came together to reexamine ways to mitigate risks to vulnerable populations. While the UN welcomed the EU’s enhanced efforts to deal with this crisis, there remains a critical need for world leaders to move beyond an “emergency response” mode and to implement a more durable response that corresponds to the protracted nature of this problem. As ATHA’s Julia Brooks has written on the causes and consequences of the Mediterranean crisis back in September 2014 and most recently in February 2015, there are inherent shortfalls of military and law enforcement maritime-focused responses in providing long-term solutions to this daunting problem. This issue exemplifies the tensions between, on the one hand, the need to fulfill humanitarian responsibilities and make regional, political commitments toward solutions, and on the other hand, negotiating budgetary constraints and assuaging public perceptions around immigration and protracted conflicts nearby. As this crisis escalates, it will not be resolved at sea alone; there is a need for more proactive and comprehensive measures to mitigate the vulnerability that populations face when migrating.

Assistance from the sea

Civilian and military mariners have a rich tradition of helping people in need on the world’s oceans. In 2014, roughly 800 merchant and cargo ships rescued over 40,000 migrants who were attempting to make it to Europe. Between October 2013 and September 2014, Italy’s Mare Nostrum military operation rescued more than 113,000 migrants. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Article 98, specifically addresses the duty to render assistance, by stating that:

Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers: (a) to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost; (b) to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him […]

Despite a genuine willingness to help and the best intentions of the global maritime shipping industry, however, the small crews that operate merchant vessels are not properly trained or equipped to deal with the scope and complexity of assisting the large numbers of migrants making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. The militaries and coast guards of the world are maintained to provide security and stability within the maritime domain – and are extremely proficient in helping those in distress – but can quickly be overwhelmed by large numbers of migrants given the broad range of other missions they routinely undertake.

Thousands of years of maritime history have proven the futility of attempting to solve land-based problems with only maritime-based military solutions. Global illicit trafficking and smuggling, which includes persons, drugs, weapons, and other materials is one of the most complex and challenging issues facing humanity. Western nations spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on primarily maritime-based military and law enforcement operations to stem the flow of drugs from Latin America, with relatively little to show for their efforts other than periodic interdictions that play well with the media, but offer a very small measurable decrease in the availability of narcotics to affected populations.  

An overreliance on maritime-centric solutions

Unfortunately, the EU’s “10 Point Action Plan on Migration”, developed within days of the most recent catastrophic sinking in the Mediterranean last week, continues to rely heavily on militaries, law enforcement agencies, and border patrol organizations to do much more than they are capable of. The following two points within the EU’s plan are maritime-based responses that, while not officially provided in a prioritized manner, are notably listed first and second:

  • Reinforce the Joint Operations in the Mediterranean, namely Triton and Poseidon, by increasing the financial resources and the number of assets. We will also extend their operational area, allowing us to intervene further, within the mandate of Frontex.
  • A systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers. The positive results obtained with the Atalanta operation should inspire us to similar operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean.

While these two actions may sound impressive at face value, taking a closer look at the Libyan coastline alone – the primary point of departure for migrants currently crossing the Mediterranean – highlights the magnitude and complexity of just the maritime problem. Libya’s coastline is over 1,770km in length, the longest of any African nation bordering the Mediterranean (by comparison, California’s entire coast runs only 1,350km), and the country has been gripped by lawlessness and violence since the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. Even if the number of military and law enforcement ships and aircraft triples (or quadruples), the enormous size of this maritime area that must be effectively monitored and responded to is simply too large for a response to be truly effective and sustainable. And none of this takes into account the vast ungoverned spaces inland from the sea, where the traffickers and smugglers are able to operate with impunity. These criminals refine their tactics for transporting people from Africa to Europe in direct response to changes in operations by Triton and Poseidon.

Developing and implementing sustainable solutions

While the world will always rely on vessels that travel upon the sea to assist people in distress, the only real chance of finding meaningful solutions for the multifaceted problem of irregular migration is to develop and institute integrated, layered, and proactive efforts that span the full range of diplomatic, policy, economic, and military/law enforcement activities. Within the EU’s “10 Point Plan”, this means a much heavier emphasis (and requisite priority of funding) on these particular efforts:

  • Consider options for an emergency relocation mechanism.
  • An EU wide voluntary pilot project on resettlement, offering a number of places to persons in need of protection.
  • Engagement with countries surrounding Libya through a joined effort between the Commission and the EEAS; initiatives in Niger have to be stepped up.
  • Deploy Immigration Liaison Officers (ILO) in key third countries, to gather intelligence on migratory flows and strengthen the role of the EU Delegations.

The fact that these are part of the plan should absolutely be applauded – but there is little time to “consider” options and conduct “pilot” projects. Heavy engagement with land-based diplomatic policy-making efforts that are well funded will be crucial to success. Any plan that continues to rely primarily on reactive maritime responses will not only allow tragedies to persist on the world’s oceans and seas, but will pull valuable resources and focus away from the political and economic solutions that are ultimately required to go after traffickers and smugglers ashore. We must make forceful steps to address the root causes of displacement. An honest and introspective discussion must continue to take place within the EU so that decision makers can develop compassionate, reasonable, and manageable migration policies. Such policies must share responsibility across regional partners and offer a broad range of alternatives to improve protection for migrants, and arrest and prosecute those who attempt to exploit them to the fullest extent of national and international laws.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or the Naval War College.

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