Johannesburg — Migrants have been losing their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean on unseaworthy, overcrowded vessels for years, but until two weeks ago, their deaths rarely generated headlines. The sheer scale of the tragedy that occurred off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on 3 October, however, was hard to ignore.
A boat, which disembarked from Libya carrying an estimated 500 Eritrean asylum seekers, was only half a mile from Lampedusa's coast when it caught fire and capsized. So far, Italian authorities have pulled over 350 bodies from the water.
The disaster has precipitated much discussion about what the European Union (EU) and its members states should be doing to prevent further loss of migrant lives at sea, even as the death toll in the Mediterranean continues to mount, with dozens of Syrian and Palestinian refugees losing their lives on 11 October when another boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa.
Compared to last year, 2013 has seen a marked increase in the numbers of migrants attempting sea crossings to Italy and Malta. While some 15,000 migrants and asylum seekers reached the two southern Mediterranean countries in 2012, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), over 32,000 have arrived so far this year.
The spike in numbers of migrants using the so-called Central Mediterranean route - which usually involves departures from Libya, but also includes those from Egypt and the Turkish coast - is not unprecedented. Following the collapse of the governments in Tunisia and Libya in 2011, 60,000 migrants used the route, with most of them arriving in Lampedusa.
The Italian website Fortress Europe, which tracks migrant deaths, estimates that since 1988, nearly 20,000 people have died trying to penetrate Europe's borders, the vast majority of them at sea.
Most of the discussion since the recent tragedies has focused on increasing search-and-rescue capacity. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom proposed that the role of EU border agency Frontex be expanded from the patrols it currently coordinates off the Italian coast to span the entire Mediterranean.
Such a move could address the current lack of clarity surrounding which countries are responsible for rescuing boats in distress and where their occupants should disembark. But the six member states with Mediterranean coastlines have already voiced their opposition to a proposed regulation that would govern Frontex-coordinated operations, arguing that international laws already deal with such matters.
"Prospects for it to be adopted soon are quite low," said Kris Pollet, a senior legal and policy officer with the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). "There's no real sign that this is going to be a decisive moment."
Meanwhile, the European Parliament has just approved a new state-of-the-art border surveillance programme called Eurosur, which will implement a system for monitoring the EU's external borders and sharing information between various national border security agencies. Eurosur will launch in December and, according to Malmstrom, could also be used to more quickly identify migrant boats in distress.
However, Philip Amaral of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Europe pointed out that Eurosur has been in the pipeline for several years, long before the recent tragedy in Lampedusa. "The real basis is to tighten borders and prevent irregular migration; there's a heavy emphasis on the use of satellite imagery and drones," he told IRIN.
"A byproduct could be that more lives would be saved at sea, but it doesn't establish clear lines in terms of which countries are responsible for migrant boats in distress. We think it's a missed opportunity," he said.
Amaral also lamented the fact that the Eurosur regulation does not include language that would absolve ship masters from criminal responsibility when rescuing migrant boats. "In Italy, they're very reluctant to rescue ships in distress because they fear, rightly so, that they'll be prosecuted" for aiding irregular migration, he said.
Ensuring that shipmasters cannot be prosecuted for facilitating the smuggling of migrants is among a list of 10 urgent measures that UNHCR is calling for to prevent further loss of life and increase burden sharing across the EU.
"It is shameful to witness hundreds of unwitting migrants and refugees drowning on Europe's borders," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a 12 October statement. He expressed particular concern that Syrian asylum seekers were among the casualties of recent boat tragedies. "They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum," he said.
In the absence of any EU-wide agreement on how to handle irregular migration across the Mediterranean, Italy announced on 14 October that it would triple its air and sea presence in the southern Mediterranean to better respond to potential shipwrecks. The following day, Italian authorities reported that 370 migrants had been rescued from three boats in the waters between Libya and Sicily.
Amaral welcomed the move by Italy but emphasized that the responsibility for search and rescue should be shared with other member states. "The EU is all about solidarity, so it can't just be left to Italy and Malta. Other countries need to pitch in and help out," he said.
Legal migration options needed
EU Commissioner Malmstrom has joined migrant rights organizations in pointing out that, in the longer term, the only way to discourage migrants and asylum seekers from paying smugglers to take them across the Mediterranean in rickety vessels is to provide them with more legal channels for entering Europe.
However, Pollet of ECRE said there was little willingness among member states to even engage in a debate about opening up legal channels for low-skilled migrants and asylum seekers to enter Europe. "At the moment, it's a very hypocritical approach," he said.
"The whole discussion is focusing now on increased search and rescue capacity and trying to prevent irregular migration; it's really focused on the symptoms of the problem rather than the root causes. There's very little talk about how are these people supposed to get into Europe."
Amaral agreed. "There is definitely a needed [legal] channel, especially for asylum seekers," he said. "But currently there's no political will for opening the doors of Europe and mainstream public opinion is very far away from that."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]