Photo opportunism for Theresa May and David Cameron who joined enforcement officers on an immigration raid on the day ONS data are released.
Today’s announcement of a crackdown on illegal migration to coincide with ONS latest figure on net migration is misleading. Clearly, undocumented migration has nothing, or only marginally, to do with net migration as the latter are a measure of legal migration only.
So the announced measures were just an attempt (mostly successful only with Tory media) to divert attention away from what is a remarkable failure of Cameron’s previous government to deliver on its own immigration pledge (for a critique of the immigration pledge see here).
We have also witnessed a poor attempt by Cameron to shift the blame for the failure on Lib Dem. This is totally misleading as the Home Office, and the Immigration portfolio in particular, have been firmly in Tory’s hands throughout the previous government.
Illegal migration in the UK is a much smaller phenomenon that the government would like people to believe. Due to its geographic position and extensive border control, the UK is nothing like the EU southern border, but smuggling and irregular migration in the Med have had extensive coverage in the last few weeks, so this was a classic attempt to bridge the announcement to the Mediterranean crisis story.
It is also remarkable in today’s speech that the government continues to use ‘net migration’ and the pledge to reduce it to ‘tens of thousands’ as a benchmark of its immigration policy despite experts have highlighted several reasons why it is a wrong criterion for immigration policy, not least because the government has no control over emigration. But, perhaps more importantly, high level of immigration in a country with such a low unemployment rate is clearly a sign of an healthy economy that demands more foreign workforce to run.
“Triton cannot be a search-and-rescue operation. I mean, in our operational plan, we cannot have provisions for proactive search-and-rescue action. This is not in Frontex’s mandate, and this is in my understanding not in the mandate of the European Union,” Leggeri told the Guardian.
If the EU plan leaked by the Guardian is confirmed at today’s meeting, it is a very sad day for Europe. The plan shows an astounding lack of political leadership and vision. It is not only impractical but also inhumane. It will undermine EU’s international standing and do little to address boat migration. Out of about 21,000 arrivals this year via the central Med route, roughly half of them are from Syria and Eritrea: where is the EU planning to ‘rapidly’ send them back to (about 10,000 people)? Where is the magical number of 5,000 resettlement places come from? Germany alone in the last four years took 30,000 Syrians (the UK only 143, just for the record).
If they are serious about saving lives at sea (and I honestly have serious doubt about this) they have to do three things: a) immediately restart Mare Nostrum under a EU-wide mandate or fund the Italian Navy to do what they did so well last year; b) substantially increase the number of resettled refugees from Syria (up to 150-200,000 a year) – this will reduce the need for people to use smugglers and risk their lives (ie empty the demand); c) create new pathways for low-skilled economic migration into Europe. The next step is of course to stabilize Libya and reach a long-term settlement in the Middle East. If you ask me why the EU plan includes ensuring that every and each migrant is fingerprinted in its 10-point action plan for ‘saving lives’, well, because the 10-point plan has very little to do with saving lives and much more with political posturing and militarizing the Mediterranean.
A footnote: International leaders have put together some kind of charming offensive.
The Italian PM Matteo Renzi spoke to the New York Times but, as pointed out by Alexander Betts (RSC, Oxford), he is ‘still badly missing the point – this is not about “trafficking”; it’s an asylum crisis!’. His spin doctor has also recommended him to repeat incessantly two phrases: a) ‘we need a political response, not an emotional one’ – that is to say no Mare Nostrum this time around; b) ‘migrants are everyone’s problem’, that is to say we are not going to pay for this alone.
Meanwhile, the UK PM David Cameron and his Deputy Nick Clegg spoke to The Guardian and the BBC saying that they regret to have criticised Mare Nostrum, accusing the operation to cause more people to die at sea, however, this move seems to have more to do with the forthcoming UK general election than the EU action plan, where it is clear that the UK and the others have no intention to launch a EU search and rescue operation. Better some ‘surgical’ strikes in Libyan ports.
‘A rescue operation may not always be the best solution’ – anonymous
[will write a longer and more reflexive piece later today]
How much is a human life worth? How many more people have to die to generate enough momentum for Europe to intervene? Unfortunately these are not rhetorical questions. More than 1,500 people have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean on their way from North Africa since the start of 2015.
Many Europeans are wondering how much longer Europe can ignore the tragedy unfolding on its doorstep while politicians and policy makers weigh up the political and economic cost of saving lives at sea.
Mare Nostrum was duly replaced by the Frontex-led Triton operation. This scaled-back programme, which had originally been conceived to support Mare Nostrum and ended up replacing it, only stretched to 30 miles off European coastlines at a cost of roughly one third of the programme it replaced. EU officials argued Triton would deliver better value for money – but, tragically, you get what you pay for. Triton is certainly smaller in scale and has a narrower mandate – to police and monitor European sea borders rather than carry out rescue operations including in international waters. But with so many dead already this year, is the political sustainability of Triton now to be called into question?
The latest tragedy may trigger enough of an EU-wide sense of indignation to create the political support needed for a new search and rescue operation similar to Mare Nostrum. Such an operation should see a substantial involvement of the EU and of EU member states – not just Italy, Latvia, Malta, Iceland and a few others.
Where is the EU’s response?
The EU has substantial resources, but member states have so far failed to agree a common strategy to respond to Mediterranean irregular crossings that are turning the sea into a mass graveyard. The response from Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi – to call for an emergency meeting of the European Council – is a start but it remains to be seen if this time he can mobilise the support of the big EU players.
In particular he must overcome the past striking silence of France, the timid support of Germany and open opposition of the UK. Several previous attempts have failed. However, this time the Italian PM can count on the support of Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief and former Italian foreign minister in Renzi’s cabinet. The death toll of drownings this year now stands at 30 times higher than at the same point in 2014 when Mare Nostrum was still active, so a new enhanced version would certainly help to save lives.
Federica Mogherini Valda Kalnina/EPA
Some, like UK prime minister David Cameron, have argued that search and rescue operations are a “pull factor” for people to attempt to make crossings, ultimately also causing more migrants to die. However both the current level of migrant arrivals and the death toll among those who never make it prove he was wrong and that migration flows have multiple causes.
However, it is also clear also that rescue operations alone won’t offer a long-term solution to irregular crossings in the Mediterranean, as they do nothing to address the root causes of migration in the region, and a comprehensive EU strategy is needed.
As Mogherini recently reaffirmed, stabilisation of the long corridor that goes from Libya to Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq should be the priority for such a strategy. But the situation in the Horn of Africa, a decade-long war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and violent insurgencies in Nigeria and Mali also contribute to large movements of population that increase the flows across the Mediterranean.
To start with, the EU should focus on Libya where the end of Gaddafi’s regime left a power void. Sarkozy’s France and Cameron’s UK were as keen in leading the international military campaign to oust Gaddafi as they are now reluctant to deal with the consequences of their bombs. The ongoing civil war has torn apart communities and devastated the economy, leaving ample opportunities for human smugglers. This is unlikely to get better any time soon and boats will continue to depart from Libya for the foreseeable future.
From a EU perspective, it may prove more effective in the short term to look to Libya’s relatively more stable neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt, to help in patrolling the North African coast and intercepting boats – and perhaps the proposed EU-run migrant and asylum processing centres could be established in those countries.
The processing centres could also operate as job centres where recruitment opportunities both in Europe and in EU-funded initiatives in the region for migrants would be available. Such a solution would facilitate regular mobility for some – but it is hard to imagine that this would offer a solution for many as it assumes a static understanding of the job market and the willingness of employers to subject themselves to more scrutiny – which would inevitably reduce opportunities for exploiting cheap undocumented labour.
Whatever solutions are implemented, some people are still likely to try their luck with smugglers – so a second line of interception closer to the EU shore would be needed. This should resemble Mare Nostrum but under a concerted EU leadership. Once boats are detected in EU waters or in international waters in case of need, they should be taken to shore but rather than ending up in Italian reception centres, migrants should be taken to EU-led centres in the closer EU member states with national and international personnel.
These centres would operate as a tertiary filter for migrants. This would mean saving lives but would offer no guarantee of a right to stay. But rather than envisaging mass repatriation schemes, not least because they are extremely costly and hard to implement, it may prove more economically beneficial to Europe to establish a system of temporary residence permits with right to look for work and, for sake of minimising internal political opposition, limited access or no to welfare provision.
While not free from risks of exploitation, such a system would give people a chance to demonstrate their entrepreneurship and willingness to work and contribute to Europe’s ageing societies.