The trouble with policing the Mediterranean

Europe increasingly frames migration by sea as a security issue. That only makes routes more dangerous while failing to appreciate the humanitarian nature of the crisis.
By: /
March 9, 2015

The Mediterranean is one of the world’s most perilous bodies of water for migrants. While sources of data are conflicting and of varying accuracy, we know that over 3,000 migrants died trying to cross it in 2014. ‘Irregular’ migration into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa has been a constant for decades, with migrants now coming from Senegal, Guinea, Syria, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and further afield. The European reaction, which despite occasional flashes of humanitarianism promises only more border security, demonstrates the perils of framing migration as a risk to be managed and externalized.

The European reaction to the present crisis in the Mediterranean has shown glimpses of humanitarian commitment, but largely lapsed back into a comfort zone focused on border security. The end in late 2014 of Italy’s Mare Nostrum coastguard mission, which focused on intensive search and rescue and may have saved thousands of migrants, has been a key turning point.

The mission was cancelled due in part to Italy’s inability to bear the costs of the operation alone yet its replacement mission, Triton, has also been launched amidst claims that migrants are cynically launching themselves into a deadly sea passage only in order to be rescued and granted asylum. Just last week, the head of the EU’s external borders agency warned that up to a million migrants were waiting to leave for Europe from Libya.

Assertions such as these, and claims that terrorists will infiltrate smuggling channels to attack Europe, allow a simplistic connection between migration, crime, and terrorism. They not only downplay the human cost but ignore the very practical facts that most refugees are running away from conflict and that most human smugglers are driven by economic motives. The Triton mission is, predictably, “not focused on search and rescue, does not routinely operate in international waters, and is significantly reduced in scale.” Indeed, plans for a larger EU presence in Mediterranean waters now appear to be framed in security terms and in relation to managing fallout from the civil war in Libya.

The EU’s patrol-focused approach to migration represents a return to the norm. Since the late 1990s, European states have built up an arsenal of border security measures along the Mediterranean. Spain has taken the lead on sea surveillance while Finland has played a crucial role in consolidating Frontex’s role as a common external borders agency. One of the more consequential aspects of the security oriented mindset is the desire to externalize migration control through the offshoring of security. Police cooperation has become an increasingly common tool. The most successful early example of this was Spanish joint patrols with Senegalese and Mauritanian forces after a surge in migrant arrivals in the Canary Islands between 2004 and 2007.

While this externalization of migration policy has been successful on its own terms, resulting in a fall of over 95 percent in migrant detections off West Africa’s coast, it has contributed to making migration more dangerous elsewhere. There is growing evidence to suggest that many of the migrants making trips from Libya more recently are those who otherwise would have used the now sealed route off the West African coast. Nevertheless, this police cooperation model has been extended to Libya through the EU’s Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM).

Beyond police cooperation, the pressure for other control activities in third countries continues to grow. There is already a veritable archipelago of camps and detention facilities along all edges of the Mediterranean yet proposals for wholesale offshore processing of migrants continue to be mooted as recently as last week. Given the human rights abuses and pushbacks characteristic of migration policies in third countries, such measures are unlikely to vigorously protect migrants’ fundamental rights.

What can be done? The biggest changes should be in the nature of intervention, which requires a shift from border security to humanitarianism. For instance, Greece’s dramatic scaling back of detention centres is a step in the right direction. There is also a need to recognize that outsourcing of migration control — though occasionally effective in building up police capacity in third countries — often solves the wrong problems. Morocco’s fiery destruction of migrant camps near Melilla last month demonstrates the need for more pressure on third countries to enforce human rights guarantees.

Finally, a change in the agenda-setting made by key international organizations in the domain of migration is crucial. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been particularly vocal during the present crisis, but others must follow suit. More generally, there should be recognition in the EU that border security and genuine humanitarianism are difficult to reconcile.