Damned if they rescue them, and if they don’t

LONDON - Military vessels from 15 European Union nations are heading to the Mediterranean as part of stepped-up efforts to reduce the soaring numbers of migrants drowning as they flee war and poverty in Africa.

An emergency summit of European heads of government on Thursday also agreed to triple spending on its Triton border protection operation.

The force, which has a budget of some €3 million (S$4.4 million) a month, currently has only two planes, two helicopters and six small patrol boats.

The decision to ramp up naval search missions came in the wake of the deaths of an estimated 800 migrants off the coast of Libya last weekend when their boat sank.

While European leaders have rallied behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel's appeal to "uphold Europe's values and credibility" by containing this human tragedy, none are under any illusions that their military approach is a long-term solution to the continent's migration pressures. "We cannot offer that," admitted EU president Donald Tusk.

Already, over 1,750 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year - 30 times more than in the same period last year.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered HMS Bulwark, the flagship of Britain's Royal Navy, to join future search-and-rescue operations. Germany also pledged 11 smaller vessels, as did a number of other EU nations.

In purely operational terms, this should be enough to prevent a repeat of the recent tragedy.

The reinforcements will join existing sea patrol operations around the coastlines of Italy and Greece, the two main entry points for illegal immigrants.

Although the area which needs to be patrolled is vast, in practice most immigrant boats try to navigate the short distance between the north African shore of Libya and the outer southern islands of Italy.

British Merlin helicopters fitted with advanced radar systems capable of identifying floating objects in a 100km radius, as well as French reconnaissance aircraft and numerous Italian coastguard ships should be able to do this job. Perversely, however, by concentrating on limiting the loss of human lives, Europe may actually make the immigration problem worse.

The flow of migrants is fuelled by unscrupulous human traffickers who persuade desperate Africans to part with all their lives' savings in order to be packed into unseaworthy boats which are virtual death traps.

By ensuring that most of these boats are detected and their passengers rescued, the EU may actually encourage this trade. All human traffickers would need to do is to put people to sea in the knowledge that someone would pick them up. The more that are detected and rescued, the more are likely to risk the passage.

To make matters worse, EU leaders remain divided on what should be done with those who are rescued. Under existing rules, the European country where migrants land first is charged with their fate.

Italy, which faces the brunt of coping with the arrivals, is looking for greater burden sharing. But an appeal by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to his EU colleagues that "helping the migrants is everyone's duty" fell on deaf ears. Mr Cameron, who faces pressure from the anti-immigrant Ukip in next month's general election, made clear that anyone picked up by British ships will be handed over to the Italian authorities.

Briefing reporters after the summit, Mr Tusk noted that "saving lives is not just about rescuing people at sea, it is also about stopping the smugglers".

The EU is now looking at various options to "identify, capture, and destroy" vessels "before they are used by traffickers".

But destroying the vessels won't be easy. Since most of them are in Libyan waters and the use of force is against international law, the plan can work only if it either gets permission from the Libyan government, or a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.

The former is impossible, since no functioning Libyan government exists; the latter is unlikely as Russia will oppose a UN mandate for an operation of this kind.

EU diplomats are also mulling over a "pilot scheme" to resettle African immigrants back home and an "engagement with countries surrounding Libya". Similar suggestions were proposed in 2013 after 360 migrants drowned but were subsequently shelved.

As the EU struggles with deaths at sea, 14 illegal migrants were killed when they were hit by a train in a narrow gorge in Macedonia on Thursday.

The dead - believed to be from Somalia and Afghanistan - were trying to get to western Europe via the Balkans instead of crossing the Mediterranean.


This article was first published on April 25, 2015.
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