Fortress Europe

Opinion Articles

Two weeks ago, 1,200 people died en route to Europe. They were mostly migrants, fleeing war and poverty in North Africa, who drowned when their boats sank in the Mediterranean. The death toll shined a light on Europe’s immigration policies. Will the continent work to ensure the safe arrival of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and other conflict-stricken countries? Or will it continue to look the other way as the body count builds in the Mediterranean?

Europe has faced this choice before. In October 2013, a boat carrying some 500 Libyan migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Italian coast guard was able to save only about 150 passengers. In response to the tragedy, the Italian government decided that it had a responsibility to act. It launched a vast search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, from the Roman-era name for the Mediterranean, “Our Sea,” intended to prevent the deaths of migrants traveling from Africa to Europe. And it succeeded, demonstrating that if Europe actually made the effort to protect migrants, it could. Through Mare Nostrum, Italy saved more than 130,000 people, at a monthly cost of $12 million. (Not everyone could be saved, unfortunately: an estimated 3,500 people still drowned during this period.) Laura Boldrini, a former spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, put the price at roughly $650 per saved life.


A migrant sits on the deck of an Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol boat after a rescue operation to save a group of around 180 illegal immigrants, September 25, 2005.

A migrant sits on the deck of an Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol boat after a rescue operation to save a group of around 180 illegal immigrants, September 25, 2005.


Apparently, however, that was too much to pay: citing its high price tag, the Italian government shuttered the project after just a year. Italy had expected that Mare Nostrum’s costs and responsibility would be shared by other states in the European Union. After all, the high influx of migrants was, in many ways, a continent-wide problem. But that didn’t happen. A replacement EU mission, Operation Triton, has a third of the budget, fewer assets, and a restricted mandate. (Whereas Mare Nostrum operated in international waters, Frontex Triton will be active only up to 30 miles off the Italian coast.)

Part of the problem is political. With the Islamic State (also called ISIS) gaining ground in Libya and threatening to attack Europe from the south, Europe tends to see the influx of refugees as less of a humanitarian crisis than an avoidable risk. Europe has long adopted a double standard with respect to immigration: under the Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985, Europeans may move freely across the continent, but non-Europeans continue to face patchy asylum policies.

Europe has long adopted a double standard with respect to immigration.

To be fair, the sheer number of migrants pouring in from North Africa has overwhelmed European leaders. By mid-2011, after the fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, some 30,000 Libyan refugees had reached the shores of Lampedusa. At the time, Italian officialsnoted privately that these numbers were manageable, but the political backlash had already begun. Critics  on the right warned of a “human tsunami.” French authorities unilaterally closed their borders with Italy in an attempt to prevent migrants from traveling onward to France. Even traditionally open nations, such as Denmark, talked about reintroducing border controls.

From then on, it’s been downhill. In 2014, the number of migrants traversing the Mediterranean surged to over 200,000, and casualties reached 3,500. And there are no signs that the surge will abate. In the lawless state of Libya, human smuggling has become a booming business with little legal consequence. (It may even be the case, as media reports suggest, that Libyan authorities are involved in the smuggling.) At the same time, the increased violence in Libya, including the recent beheadings of Christian migrant workers from Egypt and Ethiopia, has made people even more eager to get out.


What can Europe do to help? At this point, nearly anything would be an improvement. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has clung to an outdated agenda on migration, a catalog of old ideas that were never very successful to begin with, such as beefing up border control, cracking down on smuggling operations, increasing repatriations, and outsourcing migration management to North African countries. In the wake of the tragedies on the Mediterranean, EU leaders have tried desperately to regain momentum, coming up with a ten-point plan that they discussed at an emergency meeting in Brussels last Thursday.



Rescue workers help a migrant to disembark upon arrival at the Sicilian harbor of Catania, April 23, 2015.

Rescue workers help a migrant to disembark upon arrival at the Sicilian harbor of Catania, April 23, 2015.

At the meeting, EU leaders agreed to triple funding in 2015 and 2016 for Operation Triton and Poseidon to “increase the search-and-rescue possibilities within the mandate of Frontex.” Although this is a step in the right direction—one that was all but unimaginable just a few weeks ago—the plan also contains misguided elements. For example, the plan to conduct “surgical operations” against smugglers in Libya is bound to fail. Even if any meaningful targets could be identified, such operations might endanger the lives of migrants and refugees who are already in the hands of smugglers. And outside interventions in Libya could further destabilize the country, which would simply increase the number of people seeking to reach Europe for asylum.

The success of any plan will depend on European countries working together. For years, northern and southern Europe have been divided by the euro crisis, with the parsimonious Northerners blaming the profligate Southerners. Southern governments have pleaded the North for support, but northern countries have refused to take on liability for debts incurred by nations they do not trust. In the migrant crisis, however, the roles have reversed. It is southern Europe that has shown virtue and forbearance, and northern Europe is seen as having neglected to play its part, even though countries such as Germany and Sweden have the greatest number of asylum applications. Perhaps it is not too farfetched to suggest that the north-south divide on the question of receiving refugees could be overcome by turning the euro-crisis narrative on its head, for example by allowing southern European countries to offset the costs of migration management from their deficit-reduction targets.

After the Second World War, Europe’s peace was founded on the blurring of national boundaries. From the Marshall Plan onward, opening up borders—rather than erecting barriers—has been Europe’s revolutionary path to security. If the Mediterranean is once again the soft underbelly of the continent, it is not only because Europe cannot figure out whether to let in the boatloads of people who seek refuge on its shores. It is because the destitute would-be migrants alter the foundational nexus that has been at the heart of the modern European idea: in those capsized boats, Europe has lost itself

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