Europe’s Dilemma: Let Them In Or Let Them Die?

As another massive wave of migrants washes up on Italian shores, Europe is once again faced with a moral dilemma—and only vague plans to address the crisis.

04.15.15 6:25 PM ET

ROME — No matter what you call them—migrants, refugees, illegal immigrants—or how you feel about them, the stories of risk and survival told by Italy’s boat people are chilling.

Some survivors who arrived in Sicily over the weekend told Italian authorities how human traffickers threw a migrant’s corpse into the sea to ward off sharks following perilously close to their small boat. Some who arrived in Calabria on the Italian mainland told the organization Save the Children how a boat with more than 400 people capsized and sank, with horrific details about crying children disappearing under the waves. Others who were rescued by an Icelandic Coast Guard vessel under the EU’s Frontex border control program told how the human traffickers shot at them to wrestle back a rickety wooden fishing boat, presumably to fill it up again for another load of human cargo.

Since April 11, the Italian Coast Guard says that more than 10,000 people have arrived in Italy by boat from Libya, rescued at sea by the countless merchant ships, Italian Coast Guard and Navy vessels and an Icelandic Coast Guard ship that is under Frontex command. As many as 400 people are believed to have perished during the same time frame, bringing the total of assumed deaths to 900 since the start of the year.

Meanwhile, the European Union is treading water on its immigration policy. Next month, they plan to present a policy document presenting an agenda to address the crisis. The working paper states: “The European Agenda on Migration that will be adopted in May is the start of a process to present a set of effective and sustainable actions to address migratory challenges.”

The focus of the EU policy is to stop the boats from coming from the ports of departure or to set up processing centers in the troubled regions. Anyone who has followed the worsening situation in Libya lately can easily see the challenges there. How many more migrants will be dead by the time the agenda is enacted into a real plan is anyone’s guess.

For nearly a year starting in the fall of 2013, Italy rescued migrants on its own through a pricey search-and-rescue program called Mare Nostrum that cost the Italian government some $9.6 million a month. The Italians shut the program down in November last year to make way for the European Union’s Frontex border control program called Triton, which has a third of the budget and no equipment of its own.

No more search and rescue, the EU said at the time. Their mission would not have the pull factor that the Italian mission did, they said. Instead it would be a true border control, pushing back migrant ships to their countries of origin.

So why, if border control is the new policy, has there been a 64 percent increase in maritime rescues in the first quarter of 2015 over the first quarter of 2014, which was already a record year for migrant arrivals? Back when the EU criticized Mare Nostrum for providing a sort of travel service for migrants, it said that people would learn not to come when no one would rescue them, which would put the traffickers out of business. That hasn’t happened.

“The tragic backslide of [Mare Nostrum] is that it has also increased trafficking intensity on the other side of the Mediterranean, which means that people have been put in even more unsafe vessels and even smaller boats because of the likelihood of them being saved,” European Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom promised the European Parliament when Frontex started its Triton operation. “Frontex does not have the capacity to do Mare Nostrum. We don’t have the same amount of people.”

What the end of Mare Nostrum and the introduction of Triton has really meant is that the rescue operation has fallen on the shoulders of the Italian Coast Guard and Navy and scores of merchant ships, which are generally covered by insurance policies for such rescue missions or, in some cases, even get minimal reimbursements from the EU when they have to divert their routes to do the work that Mare Nostrum used to do. The EU is effectively paying for search and rescue, but by having someone else do the work, they don’t have to admit it. Of the 26,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy since the start of the year, Frontex says it has rescued around 5,000.

Italy, with its own burgeoning economic crises and raging unemployment, has little to offer in the way of a better life to the migrants they rescue, so they often turn a blind eye to procedural responsibilities of processing the new arrivals. Italy has been sanctioned for not following political asylum procedures, which mandate that all asylum seekers are the responsibility of the country in which they land. But the cost of the fines are much less than the cost of taking care of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who land on Italian soil.

Everyone agrees that the current situation is problematic, yet those involved are all complicit in the faulty system. “The EU external border countries are responsible for the burden, the asylum procedures. And they think that is highly unfair, so they don’t implement the EU regulation to provide similar standards,” Senior Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told Deutche Wells recently. “It’s a double problem: first, they are not fulfilling their duty in offering asylum procedures, and second, they are not offering full services to the refugees. The consequence is that the refugees move to other EU countries to apply for asylum there. What we need is a new and fair system of responsibility sharing.”

In many ways, that is already happening. All of the migrants rescued so far this year have been brought to Italy, though it is estimated that only a quarter will end up staying. The rest will melt into Europe, seeking asylum in countries where they already have family and support systems even though they landed in Italy first. That means the European Union already follows an immigration policy—whether they like it or not.