One might argue there is only one sure response to a humanitarian crisis that has now claimed nearly 1,750 lives since January: Do something. However, the Mediterranean Sea’s migrant crisis between North Africa and Europe has proved a harder case to crack, with only one sure answer appearing: There is no quick fix.
The crisis, as it is being referred to, is the manifestation of a trend of migration from North African to Europe that began more than a decade ago. Syrians, Eritreans and a variety of other refugees or opportunity-seeking migrants set sail—often off of the coast of Libya or Egypt—in search of new life in Europe. And while the passage is ten times more deadly in 2015 compared to this time last year, action is held up over a series of debates—the most pressing being European immigration policy.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Associate Professor of Political Science Nils Ringe, a specialist in European Union politics, says resolving the policy question will be a serious challenge in itself.
“Immigration is a big domestic issue, and it is the top issue on the agenda in almost all European countries,” Ringe said. “It is important to keep in mind that the hurdles for addressing this at the EU level are really high because the member states would have to come to a serious agreement.”
Some have argued for the revival of the Italian patrol and rescue program known as Mare Nostrum. Led by the Italian Navy, the program saved thousands of migrants at sea and arguably prevented many of the deaths seen today. The program was shut down, largely for budget reasons, in November 2014.
However, Mare Nostrum also pinned much of the responsibility on Italy, a concern that the state has voiced repeatedly. The European Union’s Dublin regulation says that the first EU country a migrant sets foot in must take responsibility for him. Coastal countries, like Italy, say this puts a great deal of the burden of border management on them. However, interior states like Germany, France and Britain claim they also receive many migrants along other routes.
Thus, reaching an agreement on an equitable distribution of migrants in the EU has not yet proved possible, largely as a result of political sensitivity to immigration in northern countries and an EU structure which requires a supermajority to pass legislation.
“We need the agreement of a very large number of the member states, and most of them don’t have any interest in changing the status quo at this point,” Ringe said. “And now the question is: do these continued catastrophes change the incentive structure?”
The catastrophes Ringe refers to are a series of drownings following the capsizing of migrant boats, causing many to wonder what pushes people to take such risks across the Mediterranean. Debate has surfaced over whether these wayfarers are better described as refugees or migrants, and how such distinction could change international response.
“If you’re talking about a migrant, it sounds like much more of a choice, as opposed to a refugee,” Ringe said. “The terminology absolutely matters.”
The United Nations agrees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established by the UN General Assembly in 1950 with a mandate to “lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.” In this way, a refugee crisis calls for a very specific international response, while a migrant crisis leaves more room for debate.
However, University of Wisconsin-Madison African Studies Program Associate Director James Delehanty says the distinction should be less important.
“The answer to the question of why people are trying to get into Europe undetected is easy: they come from really hard situations in really hard countries,” Delehanty said. “It’s a simple matter of escaping really dire conditions and creating opportunity for advancement—whether physically or economically.”
Besides the terminology debate, evidence suggests that any policy the EU comes to may interrupt the needs of individuals who are arriving.
Linguère Mously Mbaye, a scholar at the German Institute for the Study of Labour, conducted a study of hundreds of people in Dakar, Senegal, who were planning to make the crossing to Europe. The study found that migrants were not necessarily extremely poor, they tended to be well-connected and they knew large numbers of people from their home country already living and working in Europe. In other words, they were tied into “migration networks” that communicated information about housing, employment and various details of the transition. It is possible that any legislation involving redistribution of migrants could disrupt this network, forcing migrants to continue moving under the radar.
If it is difficult to satisfy both the migrants and Europeans, is it possible to reach a sustainable solution at all? Ringe believes so, but it will take much more than an EU resolution.
“The really big and more immediate question is how to get people to stop getting on these boats,” Ringe said. “I think the challenge, in part, is trying to address the roots of the problem—actually addressing what drives someone to take this risk and things like that in the first place, rather than thinking about immigration as a defensive act or keeping people out.”
Philippe Fargues, director of the Migration Policy Center in Florence, Italy, delivered similar sentiments in an interview with the New York Times.
“If you block people in Africa, they will continue to die,” he said. “Maybe not before our eyes, but they will die somewhere in Africa. It is pure hypocrisy.”
In the meantime and in the absence of a plan to address root causes, the EU has met several times over the last weeks, only to fall into the familiar rhythm that previous migrant response meetings have taken: Leaders issue profound words of regret. Regret is accompanied by solemn pledges of “never again.” A meeting is hastily arranged. One country is not happy with suggested policy, and so it dies in the EU bureaucratic machinery as another overcrowded boat sets off the Libyan coast.
“And the only way that maybe something will happen is, unfortunately, through these kind of major catastrophes,” Ringe said. “It’s difficult. I think so far, the pressures have not gotten strong enough to have any real search for a solution to the problem.”
A version of this post was submitted as part of an assignment for a J404: Interpretation of Contemporary Affairs course with Professor James Baughman.