ROME—Death on the Mediterranean Sea is an all-too-common side note to the ongoing migrant crisis, a saga fueled by unchecked human trafficking in Libya that continues to challenge European leaders.
In 2016, more than 5,000 people are known to have lost their lives trying to make the passage from Libya to Europe by way of Italy; countless others have died along the way without anyone taking notice. The number of dead and missing is invariably overshadowed by the number of people who survive the journey to stake their claim on the European dream: 355,361 in 2016, more than 20,000 so far this year.
European leaders from the union’s founding nations will meet here this weekend to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the creation of the ever-more divided European Union. While they sign a new treaty at a lavish ceremony at the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill overlooking the sumptuous Roman Forum, rescues at sea a few hundred miles away will be the elephant in the room. It is hard to escape the reality of the situation anywhere in Italy, not least of all Rome, where an increasing number of migrants and refugees are present almost everywhere you turn.
Last weekend, more than 6,000 people were rescued and brought to Italy; weather permitting, the weekend of the gala anniversary could see the same number of arrivals, or more. “We have yet to complete March, and we are already racing at a pace of arrivals that has exceeded anything we’ve seen before in the Mediterranean,” Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Office of Migration said in a statement. “This is typical of spring, getting very busy, but it’s not typical to have the numbers be so high this early and the corresponding deaths that go with it.”
Europe has done a miserable job controlling the flow of irregular migration. Countless rescue boats now trawl the waters off the coast of Libya, essentially waiting for a smuggler’s ship to send out a distress call to the Italian coast guard, which dispatches those closest for a rescue. But rather like putting a fleet of ambulances at a dangerous intersection with a broken stoplight, the rescue operations are there to save lives, but do nothing to actually fix the problem.
Those European countries that speak the loudest against the influx have argued the presence of rescuers at sea creates a “pull factor” for migrants. Those on the side of human rights argue that without the rescuers the death toll would be unthinkable. The traffickers have proven they care little about their human cargo, so it seems a stretch to think they are affected by whether or not the boats they send off once they are paid in full will make it or not.
The “pull factor” argument is impossible to prove either way, but it is almost certain that clamping down on the human traffickers who run free in Libya would be a more sensible first step in solving the problem than stopping the rescue boats from saving lives. On Monday, Italy held talks with the UN-backed prime minister of Libya, Fayez al-Seraj, and eight interior ministers from Europe’s most powerful nations to do just that.
The agenda included a call for investments in Libya to fight the rampant smuggling. Seraj asked for €800 million and a grocery list of supplies that include boats, guns, and binoculars to help patrol the borders and stop the traffickers. He also wants 10 ambulances, 24 Zodiac speedboats, and 30 satellite phones in addition to jeeps, cars, and scuba gear.
The €800 million is in addition to commitments of €200 million made last month to stem trafficking, of which just €90 million was earmarked for Libya. Under the new investments, Libya would agree to set up patrols in its waters to turn back smuggling boats, placing the migrants and refugees on them in camps managed by the government in Tripoli rather than in cruel Libyan prisons, which is what often happens now.
Italy’s interior minister Marco Minniti, who is pushing for the success of the endeavor, promised that the camps would be safe. “There will be camps that are created together with the humanitarian organizations in full respect for peoples’ rights,” he said. The Libyan camps would also have facilities to allow migrants and refugees to apply for political asylum in Europe that includes a safe corridor plan for those whose applications are accepted, he said.
The idea is marvelous on paper. It would undoubtedly save thousands of lives at sea. But the question of whether it would actually help those seeking asylum or a better life is debatable. Even in Europe, refugee camps are among the most lawless no-mans-lands anywhere. Thousands of people stuck on the Greek islands in camps live in conditions so miserable that many aid agencies have left—so that they would not be affiliated with the sites’ violations against human rights. Suicide rates in the camps are skyrocketing and many people have decided to go back to Turkey or even Syria to escape the living hell while they wait for their applications to be processed.
If the migrants and refugees are turned back and forced to stay in Libyan camps, which could be dangerous and inhumane given the level of lawlessness in that country, it might eventually deter others from making the journey to try. But one is justified in asking how many people might die or suffer during the transition phase.
Italy has pledged to invest €200 million into the African nations from which the highest numbers of asylum seekers originate as a more sane way to address the flows and initiate fixing the root of the problem. But bureaucracy on both sides of the Mediterranean has kept that pledge from being realized so far, which serves as an even bigger deterrent to other European nations who might consider doing the same.
There won’t be much time this weekend between photo ops and self-congratulatory cocktail parties toasting the success of the European project to give much thought to anything else. But that doesn’t mean the people will not be risking their lives for their very own version of the very European dream its leaders are celebrating.