Sea of Death

20 Jul 2017

Criticism towards humanitarian organizations and the EU’s incorrect migration policy in the Mediterranean overshadows alternative solutions.


Why is it happening ?

On 22 June 2015 1.200 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Italian coast. The tragic deaths convinced the European Union (EU) that Italy could not be left alone in facing the migrant crisis. In response, the EU set up the EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia to catch ships of smugglers and human traffickers in order to reduce human losses.


Initially, operation Sophia assigned the rescue efforts to the Italian navy under Operation Mare Nostrum. However, this task was reassigned to NGOs, such as the Migrants Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), Doctors Without Borders, Sea-Watch, SOS Méditerranée, Proactiva, Sea-eye, Jugend Rettet, Refugee Boat Foundation and Save the Children.


Since 2016, Operation Sophia shifted from patrolling the Italian coasts to Libyan territorial waters. While this shift saved thousands of lives, it produced unintended consequences. One such consequence is the adoption of a new business model in human trafficking that assumes immediate maritime rescue by the European navies or NGOs. Thus, instead of using large vessels to reach the Italian coasts without assistance, smugglers now send immigrants on inflatable boats inadequate for navigation.


Lately, the media and politicians denounced NGOs for capturing ships over Libyan waters, often showing them the way towards Europe with navigation assistance.  Critics argue that those efforts pull more asylum seekers into the continent. NGOs are accused of fomenting a new model of human trafficking that causes more human casualties and its counter productive to the goal of stopping migrants from reaching Europe. In the last two year, this narrative quickly ingrained in the European public discourse.


Why does it matter?

According to official EU numbers, in 2016 more than 5.000 people lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean. In the first three months of 2017, Italy hosted 24.515 migrants, among which 5.500 were unaccompanied minors. These numbers are alarming and continue to rise, threatening to bring EU policy and mechanisms to a breaking point.


Caritas Italiana, the Italian ecclesiastical community's charity body, questioned the accusation of NGOs, arguing that it serves as a pretext to draw attention from the real roots of the problem. Rescue operations of the Italian navy and humanitarian organizations cannot be considered ‘pull factors’ for irregular migration. Cancelling their mission would mean condemning migrants to sure death.


Rather, fingers must be pointed at European migration policy; since it exclusively addresses the rescue of those at risk of drowning. The continuous arrival of asylum seekers and the increase of deaths demonstrate how this policy encouraged traffickers to adopt strategies that provide higher profits and expand illegal smuggling networks. In turn, this fuels uncontrolled migration and contribute to transforming the Mediterranean into a sea of death. Therefore, it is the  European policies and in particular the implementation of Operation Sophia, that is mostly responsible for fostering human trafficking networks, not the humanitarian organizations implementing such policies. 


What can you do about it?

Holistically, to avoid illegal migration, the roots of the problem must be addressed locally: insufficient education, corruption, unemployment and inequalities in resource distribution in the countries of origin. Migration is closely related to economic necessities. Last June, the EU launched the Partnership Framework that includes dialogue with third countries, to encourage migrants to return home and facilitate access to visa waivers, work permits and development aid. All these measures tackle the issue at its root.


There are alternative proposals of so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’, which Caritas Italiana also joined. They allocate funds, gathered by Caritas and the Sant’Egidio community, that allow asylum seekers to reach Europe through legal and safe means. This project aims to avoid trips in the Mediterranean, prevent exploitation by human traffickers, and grant people in a vulnerable position legal entry into Italy with visas. The EU should look at these charity projects, that aspire to regulate the migration flow through Europe, as examples in order to improve migration operations from the Libyan coasts.


Lastly, millennials should cooperate with some of these NGOs and do volunteering in Africa, taking part in capacity building programs for the local population, building government legitimacy and public confidence. Millennials involved should ensure the sustainability of these programs, holding the government responsible for their people’s rights and promoting social dialogue. The programs should balance the weaknesses of local governments and fill the gaps left by poor state services and social security.



Image Credit:

Giulia Ciriachi briefs from Rome, Italy. She is a candidate for a Master of Science in International Political Economy and Development. 


Please reload

Please reload

  • LinkedIn - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle
  • YouTube - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle
  • Facebook - Black Circle