The Central Mediterranean has, in the last years, turned into the epicentre of human (migrant) disasters. The Central Mediterranean route refers to the migratory flow coming from Northern Africa towards Italy and Malta through the Mediterranean Sea. Here, Libya often acts as nexus point where migrants from the Horn of Africa and Western African routes meet before embarking on their journey towards the EU.

Lampedusa: one year later

One year ago, 366 migrants died close to the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. Just a few weeks ago, almost 500 migrants died close to Malta. These tragedies are only two examples of the many migrant tragedies unfolding all over the world, as can be read in a recent report from the International Organization for Migration: "Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration". What is not known was the scale of the deaths of migrants. According to the report more than 3,000 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year. The true number of fatalities is higher as many bodies are never found and deaths are not reported. The increase in deaths in the Mediterranean likely reflects a  increase in the number of migrants trying to reach Europe, although the high share of deaths in the Mediterranean is in part due to the availability of better data for this region. Although terms as 'flooding' are used by media outlets, boat migrants comprise around 10 % of the more than 1 million new immigrants entering the EU from non-EU countries  by air, land or sea each year, but among those known to have arrived "illegally" in 2013 and 2014 over half came by sea, mainly using the Central Mediterranean route.

The term ‘mixed migration’ is used for these migrants, as a way to indicate both people who leave their homes due to war or political persecution and those who suffer economic hardship and want to lead a better life. However, looking at Frontex data, the majority of African irregular migrants detected along the Central Mediterranean route in the last two years were Syrians and Eritreans fleeing conflict zones, so  prima facie in need of international protection (you can hardly call them fortune seekers). As can be read in the IOM report "the introduction of visa obligations for many countries of origin, coupled with carrier sanctions, may have led to a shift from regular means of transport, such as airplanes and ferries, to irregular means of transport like fishing boats". In response to irregular migration by sea, The EU and its member states have tightened border control which have forced migrants to take more dangerous routes (which presumably, among other reasons, have contributed to a higher migrant death toll) and that have made them increasingly more dependent on human traffickers or smugglers to cross borders.

At the EU level,  a coordinating border agengy, Frontex, was established in 2004. It has increasingly been involved in joint operations aimed at controlling and reducing irregular migration across the southern external sea borders of the EU. Joint operation Hermes, which started in 2011 and is still running, target migration flows between Tunesia, Libya and Algeria, and the southern Italian islands of Lampedusa, Sicily and Sardinia. Joint operation Aeneas focusses on migratory flows from Egypt and Turkey to the Italian regions of Puglia and Calabria. As from 1 November 2014, at the earliest, the Frontex coordinated joint operation Triton will start its activity in the Central Mediterranean. Other important developments at the EU level are the introduction of Eurosur in 2013, an integrated surveillance and intelligence systeem for the Mediterranean and the set-up of the European Commission’s Task Force Mediterranean in order to prevent deaths at sea and to prevent human tragedies like Lampedusa from happening again.


Member states also engage(d) in the practice of interception and push-backs in the Mediterranean. The term push-back is used to indicate any activities designed to impede boats from moving forward towards their intended destination including towing a boot back to another location or circling a boat and carrying out maritime manoeuvres to impede its forward movement (UNHCR working definition). Italy intercepted a migrant boat with Eritrean and Somali nationals heading for Italy in international waters and forcibly returned it to Libya without doing any screening whatsoever to determine whether any passengers needed protection. The European Court of Human Rights in its 2012 judgment Hirsi v Italy found a violation of Article 3 ECHR prohibiting inhuman and degrading treatment on a double count (risk of ill-treatment in Libya and risk of repatriation from Libya to countries where ill-treatment is rife), a violation of Article 4 of Protocol no. 4 prohibiting collective expulsion and a violation of Article 13 ECHR guaranteeing a domestic remedy for any arguable complaint of a violation of the Convention. Following the judgment Italy appears to have ceased the practice of push-backs. It has been strengthening its maritime presence in the Central Mediterranean through a specific operation named Mare Nostrum (OMN). It aims at controlling migrant flows through increased surveillance and search-and-rescue (SAR) activities. Since it began over 100 000 people have been rescued. OMN constitutes the only concrete step taken so far by a European state to assist migrants who face the perilous sea crossing to seek safety in Europe. However EU Home Affairs Commissioner Malmström noted that the success of the Italian operation has created a pull factor and made the sea crossing attempts more dangerous. Recognising the efforts that have been made by the Italians, no one country can solve the issue alone. Malström notes that "if all the promises after the Lampedusa tragedy are to mean anything, solidarity between EU countries must become reality". "Let me be very clear – when it comes to accepting refugees, solidarity between EU member states is still largely non-existent. While some EU members are taking responsibility, several EU countries are accepting almost no-one. Last year, six whole countries of the EU accepted less than 250 refugees between them. All this, while the world around us is in flames. These EU countries could quite easily face up to reality by accepting resettled refugees through the UN system, but despite our persistent demands they are largely refusing. This is nothing short of a disgrace". The Netherlands has accepted to resettle 250 Syrian refugees up to now, compared to the numbers neighbouring countries are accepting, it is certainly a disgrace. Sometimes i feel ashamed of being a Dutch national.

Cartoon: © Chappatte.

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