European integration

Dying for Europe

A gruesome tragedy unfolded aboard a ship in the Mediterranean Sea this summer. Twenty-nine men, women, and children fleeing crisis-torn countries succumbed to engine fumes in the vessel’s hold. As 60 others scrambled to escape, the human traffickers carrying them to Europe stabbed them and threw them into the sea off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Eventually, a Danish petrol tanker rescued 569 survivors.

This month, 500 more migrants died off the coast of Malta, when a group of human traffickers responded to the passengers’ refusal to move onto smaller vessels by deliberately ramming the boat that had carried them from Egypt. Less than a week later, dozens of asylum-seekers died when their boat capsized near the Libyan coast – long before reaching their European destination.

Such large numbers of deaths in and around Europe should do more than briefly seize headlines; they should spur action. But Europeans seem inured to the plight of asylum-seekers and migrants, almost 3,000 of whom have died in the Mediterranean in 2014 alone. This situation is untenable, both morally and politically.

Of course, Europe cannot help all those fleeing violence and destitution. But, as the world’s wealthiest continent, it can certainly do more, especially if it adopts a unified approach.

At a time when the number of displaced people is at an historic high, the European Union – which accounts for 29% of global wealth – hosts just 9% of refugees, leaving far poorer countries to carry most of the burden. For example, tiny Lebanon shelters one million of the three million Syrians who are displaced, whereas the EU – 100 times larger – has taken in only 100,000.

The EU is hardly powerless to address the tragic situation in and around the Mediterranean. The new European Commission, Council, and Parliament should be able to uphold the EU’s humanitarian obligations by reducing the number of deaths at sea, thereby setting the stage for a more reasonable public debate about migration, while improving strained relations with Africa.

This will demand, first and foremost, that EU leaders overcome the forces that have so far impeded action. One obstacle is anti-migrant populism, which has intensified owing to the serious economic challenges that Europeans have faced. With far-right political parties nipping at their heels, most mainstream politicians avoid taking a stance on migration that might make them seem “soft.”

Equally paralyzing is the way the tragic episodes in the Mediterranean are portrayed: as sudden crises, rather than as part of a long-term pattern. As such, they often provoke fiery rhetoric and defensiveness, instead of thoughtful debate. For example, when the Arab Spring rebellions erupted in 2011, many Europeans immediately feared that millions of North Africans would descend on their shores. In the three years since then, just 30,000 have arrived.

Worse, this portrayal implies that little can be done to mitigate, or even prevent, such occurrences. But the longer-term trends driving these tragedies – including demographic shifts, inadequate legal routes to Europe, poor governance and economic prospects in origin countries, and skewed public perceptions of refugees and migrants – can, to various degrees, be addressed.

For starters, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk, and the European Parliament should work to ensure that the public debate about refugees and migrants is anchored in fact. As it stands, misconceptions are rampant, with residents of many EU countries believing, for example, that they host three times as many foreigners as they actually do. By debunking such myths, EU leaders can create space for action, while undercutting the credibility of populists.

Second, in designing asylum and migration policies, the European Commission should involve member states’ foreign, employment, and development ministers, instead of just their interior ministers. The European Council also should deepen its engagement on these issues.

Third, the EU should craft asylum, migration, and border systems that equitably distribute financial, political, and other costs. The so-called “common” European asylum system that prevails today is perceived as unfair by many member states, and violates the rights of many asylum seekers.

Fourth, the EU should increase the number of refugees that it accepts, and give more people the option of applying for asylum without having to reach Europe’s borders. This would result in fewer asylum-seekers from making life-threatening voyages that leave their families deeply indebted – human traffickers charge as much as €15,000 ($19,700) to cross the Mediterranean – only to be turned away.

Finally, in order to help prevent the crises that lead to displacement, the EU should work to strengthen its relationships with African countries, especially those bordering the Mediterranean. Talk of an African Marshall Plan – with loans issued to local businesses, which would repay them to their national governments to use for infrastructure development – proliferated after the Arab Spring, but led nowhere. But such investment in Africa’s development, together with a regular, structured dialogue, could help to ease many Africans’ plight. This would reduce their incentive to migrate and, in cases where people still aspire to reach Europe, facilitate a more orderly process.

The EU’s new leaders have an important opportunity to fashion a fresh approach to asylum and migration – one that recognizes that safe, orderly migration can bring major benefits to countries of origin and destination alike. Given Europeans’ tendency toward generosity and reason – qualities that their political leaders often underestimate – such an initiative would likely even bring political gains. In short, there is no compelling reason not to extend the principled policy approach on which Europe prides itself to those who would risk their lives to reach its shores.

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.