via Flickr (c) - Rasande Tyskar
Last year, over 380,000 migrants around the world took to the seas looking to flee conflict, persecution, and economic hardship. Almost 4,300 died trying to reach their destination; the majority of them were trying to get to Europe's main entry points. The Mediterranean has become the world's deadliest sea accounting for 8 out 10 deceased migrants. With the refugee crisis exacerbating in Syria and Iraq, it is very likely that this unfortunate tendency will continue. Tragedies like the Lampedusa disaster and the recent detection of two cargo ships carrying some 1000 asylum seekers from Turkey to Italy call for a fundamental rethink of Europe's out-dated, underfunded and broken asylum system.
Following the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013, where over 360 migrants drowned, the Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, a €9.5 million per month operation aimed at saving migrants at sea. Mobilizing over 30 ships, submarines, helicopters and planes on a 24/7 basis, Mare Nostrum patrolled territorial waters and international waters off the coast of Libya, saving over 140,000 people. Despite the impact of Mare Nostrum in rescuing migrants, the program was envisioned to be an interim solution until the EU assumed its share of the burden and addressed the refugee influx.
Mare Nostrum came to an end last October and was replaced by Triton, an operation under the aegis of Europe's border security agency Frontex. While the participation of 15 European States in Triton reduces some of Italy's pressures, the new operation is not designed to fulfil the work of its predecessor. Working with less than a third of Mare Nostrum's budget and resources, Triton's scope is limited to patrolling frontiers and fight smugglers. As a result, the range of the operation is only 30 miles off the Italian coast. It should be noted that most shipwrecks have taken place at least 40 miles off of Lampedusa, an island 109 miles away from Sicily and some 70 miles away from Tunisia - outside the scope of Triton.
Operation Triton marks a clear shift in tactic, from protecting the lives of asylum seekers to simply safeguarding the border. Triton's strategy is therefore to stop the boats before they get to European seas. Even if the operation targets human trafficking, it seems unlikely that it would be able to reduce the influx of immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. People fleeing war, prosecution and poverty from across the Middle East and Africa make an attractive market for smugglers. For many of these immigrants trying to get to Europe, the danger and the $1,000 fee for passage are well worth the risk.
For those who make it to an entry point, another journey is about to begin. After surviving a dangerous trip in rickety wooden boats, migrants find themselves the prisoners of a flawed asylum system. Once in European shores, refugees do not encounter the safe heaven they expected but rather a byzantine system managed by some of Europe's most crisis-hit countries. Indeed, receiving centres in Italy and in Greece have reached overcapacity. For example, since April 5,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Sicily where local governments lack the financial capacity to provide the necessary services to these migrants.
Contrary to what most think, Italy and Greece were never meant to be the final destination for many of the refugees; they were simply a leg in the journey before heading north. However, under a legal act called the Dublin Regulation, the countries placed on the Union's borders are solely responsible for the handling of illegal migrants. Just like the First Safe Country Principle, the Dublin Regulation establishes that migrants must file their asylum claims at their first point of entry, meaning the receiving Member State where fingerprints were taken. Originally, the regulation hoped to reduce duplicated asylum claims in multiple Member States; instead, it shifted the responsibility to Member States in Europe's southern and eastern regions.
The Dublin Regulation assumes that all asylum systems across Europe provide an equivalent standard of protection for people escaping conflict and persecution. Yet refugees are often treated like criminals and held in overcrowded prisons with poor living conditions. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Member States should not return asylum seekers to Greece given the country's "inhuman or degrading" conditions created by its asylum system. Moreover, the Dublin Regulation intended to ensure that all asylum applications would be examined by one Member State, supposedly rendering the process more efficient. But the burden is not shared equally amongst Member States. Italy receives 70% of all asylum applications filed in the EU, a considerable strain that crisis-hit Rome must shoulder by itself.
Despite the alarming situation, EU Member States have provided little support to address this crisis. Most of efforts have been focused on stopping the boats before they reached the shore, but even with operations such as Triton most of the burden remains on receiving states. Greece has spent €65m to patrol its eastern seaboard where most boats with refugees from the Middle East come in, yet the EU only contributed €2m to this operation. The Dublin Regulation might reduce "asylum shopping" in the EU but it aggravates the uneven distribution of asylum seekers across the Union. In the end, the current system put in place at European level proves to be insufficiently equipped to cope with the current refugee crisis, the worst since the end of the Second World War.
EU countries should therefore reach an agreement on asylum policies, one based on the principle of burden sharing. The EU needs to prioritize the human rights and wellbeing of asylum seekers, but the participation of all 28 members is necessary. Operation Triton and the Dublin Regulation must be adjusted in order to accommodate the current volume of asylum seekers.
Failing to do so would put chest-thumping, human-rights preaching Europeans in the unsavoury position of failing to live up to their own standards.