When three hundred and sixty six immigrants drowned at Lampedusa in October of 2013, the international community took notice of the growing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. The concern and calls for efforts to help refugees fleeing Syria and North Africa made headline news. However, between the aftermath of that tragedy and the disastrous deaths of more than eight hundred people in wrecks last week, the atmosphere has changed.
The Mare Nostrum operation was launched in response to the tragedy at Lampedusa. It included a provision of five navy ships, plus air support and a team of nine hundred staff, amounting to €9 million per month funded by Italy. It proved extremely effective. However, when the financial burden proved too much to manage, financial support from the EU could not be found. The operation was discontinued last year and replaced with an inferior effort by Frontex, the EU’s border agency, costing a more comfortable €2.9 million per month. Wrecks have continued all the while.
UK politicians, concerned not to appear lax on immigration policy, have repeatedly claimed that participation in joint rescue efforts with EU members, a response recommended by the UN and multiple NGOs, will create a ‘pull factor’ that will inspire migrants to seek asylum in Britain. The convergence of this concern with campaigns to restrict immigration EU-wide and the prominence of xenophobic rhetoric in discussion of immigration, is not coincidental.
The most recent mass drownings in the Mediterranean have proven that joint effort or the lack thereof, refugees will continue to flee to Europe for as long as their native countries remain in crisis. The question is no longer whether or not to provide aid and an earnest effort to discourage dangerous crossings. The European Commission agreed on Thursday to triple the funding of rescue operations and launch a pilot resettlement scheme, while the UK has pledged naval resources, but does not promise asylum.
This response could be explained by the humanitarian light the crisis has been portrayed by in the media, or by the pleas of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and protesters worldwide. It could be due to the longevity of the crisis and the guilt of leaders for failing to respond sooner. Accusations that mishandling of the conflict in Libya has made the nation unstable and encouraged mass migration are abundant and wildly racist comments against the refugees have startled many into concern for their welfare.
However, we cannot ignore the influence of politics on responses to this tragedy. The upcoming general election in the UK is expected to feature immigration policy as a token issue. Parties can be observed scrambling to comment on the Mediterranean disasters with statements which are consistent to party policy on migrants, but also sufficiently kind-hearted to avoid alienating an electorate currently more concerned with basic humanity than politics.
In a statement Thursday, the UNHCR urged the EU to keep emphasis on humanity at the forefront of their continued efforts, commenting: “UNHCR will be urging that the range of measures proposed be expanded further, and that a holistic plan which puts the principles of humanity, solidarity and respect for human rights at the forefront is adopted.”
Politically motivated or otherwise insincere commitments cannot be trusted to last. We must continue to hold our representatives accountable and demand that they define and honour their commitments to the EU’s rescue efforts. The most recent disasters in the Mediterranean crisis come at a time when the motivations of politicians are particularly opaque, but which also presents voters with an opportunity to witness the human face of immigration and vote with their humanity.