Mediterranean rescue and European reform: a call to action

Brad Blitz Middlesex UniversityProfessor of International Politics Brad Blitz recently travelled with a team of academics to launch the Mediterranean Observatory on Migration, Protection and Asylum (MOMPA) in Malta a joint initiative between Middlesex University London and Middlesex University Malta. Here, he calls for a review of the Dublin system to help alleviate the migrant crisis. 

As Refugee Week kicked off, the Guardian informed its readers that the UK was planning to proceed with the scheduled withdrawal of the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Bulwark, from the search and rescue operation that is currently underway in the Mediterranean, at the beginning of July.

While more and more refugees from Syria and Eritrea join Somalis, Sudanese and other African migrants in their efforts to reach the shores of Europe, the new Cameron government have decided it is time to pull up the drawbridge. If the Guardian’s report is true, then we can count up the weeks of support provided by the British on both hands and still deliver a two-finger salute. Indeed, after just eight short weeks, that seems to be the message from UK Home Secretary Theresa May.

Isolationist stance

The Home Secretary’s message exposes how the government’s increasingly isolationist stance within the European Union may also undermine the security arguments it has fought hard to make. One may question the value of a peacetime navy if it does not engage in such exercises, especially at a time of great humanitarian need. It is certainly in the interest of the Foreign and Defence Secretaries to ensure that HMS Bulwark remains visible in a region which is endangered by increasing instability in Libya and by Islamists throughout the southern Mediterranean. No doubt, this is one reason why the US signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Libya’s neighbour Tunisia just last month.

Migrants arriving in Pozzallo

77 migrants, mostly from Somalia, arriving at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo on 11 June 2015. MSF, UNHCR, the Italian Red Cross and MOAS were all involved in the rescue operation. Photo by Magali Peyrefitte (Middlesex University).

Yet as the British seek to further divisions within the European Union, they have been assisted by a majority of EU Member States who, yet again, have rejected proposals for relocation of migrants and the reception of asylum seekers even from Syria and Eritrea.  The tensions within the European Union, which have been heightened by the failure to resolve the Greece debt crisis, are now at a critical point, with borders closing and migrants on the Italian-French border forcibly removed by heavy handed police.

Italian political leaders have reacted to the lack of cooperation from their neighbours, with the threat of sending migrants on, enabling desperate Africans to cross the frontier with temporary visas. Such a response reflects the frustration that Italy is currently feeling, having taken in more than 50,000 migrants, while its wealthier northern neighbours have received, in some cases, just handfuls of arrivals.

Last week, Middlesex University staff and students visited Malta and Sicily to launch a new inter-university initiative, the Mediterranean Observatory on Migration Protection and Asylum (MOMPA). During the visit, the strain falling on Italy as it tries to manage the inflows of migrants was apparent to all. From conversations with NGOs and protection agencies, to our witnessing multiple arrivals by boat, it was clear that the current approach, however temporarily effective, cannot be sustained.  Sicily has managed to receive the bulk of migrants but their wish is to head north and there is little the struggling state can do to prevent their onward journeys, short of the sort of repressive police interventions recently captured on film.

With Europe’s principle of responsibility sharing splitting at the seams, now would be a good time to initiate a review of the Dublin system

Growing strain

In parallel to the Libya-Italy nexus, Turkey and Greece are both under growing strain. More than 20,000 refugees arrived in Turkey this week and the number of flows eastward to Greece has shot up. Yet while Italy has an array of NGOs, community groups and church-based organisations to manage the protection challenges posed by new arrivals, Greece lacks the same level of humanitarian infrastructure.

The growing picture is one that has been described as an emergency crisis. But this is not a crisis caused by migratory pressures. Rather, in addition to the economic and political factors which have driven people from their homes in Africa and the Middle East, this has been engendered by the political refusal to manage a situation which by now should be familiar to many European states. The ‘emergency’ has been going for more than a decade, during which time states have learned how to respond and how to cope. What is more, just twenty years ago, Europe managed to receive and resettle hundreds of thousands of displaced Bosnians – a fact that remains live for those of us old enough to recall that tragedy. Germany alone took in more than 300,000 Bosnians. So, on what basis can one really object to the division of some 40,000 refugees across the European Union, a region that is home to more than 500 million people and contains some of the richest countries in the world?

With Europe’s principle of responsibility sharing splitting at the seams, now would be a good time to initiate a review of the Dublin system which stipulates that migrants who wish to apply for asylum, must do so in their first country of arrival. Italy and Greece have drawn the short straw, the one formerly reserved for Germany as the main benefactors of refugees. While Dublin no longer appears to be working, it would be helpful to identify what has worked to date with a view to informing the next proposal.

There is no time to wait. Dublin and Europe are at breaking point. Europe needs to understand what common architecture has been proven effective and hence what can be done in this time of need and of nationalism.

One response to “Mediterranean rescue and European reform: a call to action

  1. Pingback: Mediterranean rescue and European reform: a call to action | MOMPA·

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