Waves Upon Waves: Arab Spring Refugees Cross the Mediterranean
The small Coast Guard boat motors along the coast of southern Italy, bouncing through the swells of a royal-blue Mediterranean. It’s a cloudless, perfect day—ideal conditions for smuggling.
They are out there, says Commandante Cosimo Nicastro, pointing south to the horizon. Some 300 miles away, several boats are reported to have left from Tunisia, each one carrying around 100 refugees fleeing North Africa. The ships are headed to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the gateway for migrants trying to enter Europe. The Italian Coast Guard’s job is to stop the boats. Or, as Nicastro sees it, to save their cargo.
Since 1988, at least 17,856 people have died trying to cross into Europe, according to a report from Fortress Europe, a website that monitors refugee migration. They were found in the undercarriages of airplanes and as stowaways in trucks. They were shot by border police. They died under trains or trying to swim the English Channel. At least 114 froze to death while crossing the mountains from Turkey into Greece; 92 more died along the same border when they stepped on landmines. But no route is more deadly than the sea-lanes between North Africa and Italy, where well over half of them perished. And the Mediterranean crossing is only getting more treacherous. With 2,049 deaths there since January—more than a tenth of all reported casualties since 1988— this year is on track to be the deadliest ever. By comparison, an estimated 350 to 500 migrants die each year trying to cross from Mexico into the United States, according to the ACLU and Mexico’s human rights agency.
While the majority of immigrants still arrive in Europe by air or land, an increasing number are embarking on the harrowing journey by sea. Some European politicians, eager to fan the flames of anti-immigration sentiment, use their dramatic arrivals as telegenic fodder—if they arrive at all.
“The sea is the most difficult to control,” says Nicastro. “Four hundred people can die in five minutes.” One night last winter, Nicastro was aboard one of two boats sent to rescue 400 people in brutal weather 50 miles off Lampedusa. When the passengers spotted the Coast Guard, they all rushed to one side of the boat, causing it to capsize and dump them into the frigid sea. Nicastro’s boat moved in to pluck people out of the water. Most were already dead, but the crew saved almost 100. “They didn’t know the water. They just touched the water, the cold water, and they [didn’t] scream. They just disappeared,” he said. “Almost 300 people just died in the sea under our eyes.”
For all the talk about globalization eliminating boundaries and bringing the world closer together, it has also created new imbalances between rich and poor, spurring migration and, in turn, the construction of new barriers to stop it. In Europe’s case, where internal borders have been opened up to compete in the global economy, the focus has turned to tightening the continent’s external edge. That’s led to increased pressure on “weak link” states, and the creation of a pan-European border patrol agency called Frontex. On a continent struggling to weather an economic crisis and assimilate immigrant communities already within its borders, many Europeans see strict, unified border enforcement as the continent’s first line of defense.
This intensified border enforcement has angered activists on the European left, who argue that the deaths of migrants at sea are a function of policies of neglect, part of a coordinated effort to discourage immigration. “The Mediterranean is a mass grave,” wrote German journalist Heribert Prantl in a recent op-ed, criticizing the Italian Navy for failing to send support ships to rescue leaky boats. “Death on the Mediterranean is, like it or not, part of a deterrence strategy.” Critics accuse Frontex of drawing “a new Iron Curtain” around Europe.
Until now, the agency has been little more than a bureaucracy, coordinating border patrol units on loan from member states, including the Italian Coast Guard. Frontex also runs Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITs), which were created by EU resolution in 2007 to “allow, in case of urgent and exceptional migratory pressure, rapid deployment of border guards at the European level.” The agency has been playing an increasingly sophisticated game of cat and mouse with illegal migrants trying to enter the EU, and its commando-style operations have decreased the flow of boat migrants into Greece, pushing more toward the mine-laden land border with Turkey. With its success have come casualties, as traffickers are forced to take riskier routes and methods.
Now that the agency’s legal mandate is expanding, Frontex will have the authority to operate its own assets—patrol boats, aircraft, and border guards. That increased power is designed to meet a new wave of immigration from the developing world in coming years, one fueled by climate change and continued political instability. How Frontex will handle its newfound responsibility is an open question. So, too, is how humanely the organization will treat the expected hordes of refugees fleeing persecution and strife in North Africa.
As Europe’s handling of migration during the Arab Spring proved, there is room for improvement.
On August 1, the Italian Coast Guard intercepted a rickety, 50-foot boat overfilled with passengers and bobbing in azure Mediterranean waters less than a mile from Lampedusa Island. Two days earlier, the 296 migrants had embarked at a port outside of Tripoli. For many, the journey had begun on the other side of the Sahara, which they crossed in cramped trucks and off-road vehicles before navigating the borders and battlefields of Libya. They were fleeing famine in Somalia, endemic poverty and strife in Sudan and Eritrea, and the more recent unrest in Libya and Tunisia. The last and most important stretch was a mere 100 kilometers of open sea.
As passengers clambered aboard, more and more cramming in behind them, the traffickers directed dozens into the engine room, where the air was already thick with exhaust. When members of the Italian Coast Guard crew boarded two days later, they opened the engine room to find the corpses of 25 young men. Some had died of asphyxiation. Others were reportedly beaten to death by those afraid that an attempt to flee the engine room would capsize the boat.
For two decades, some analysts have been warning that a combination of environmental change, population growth, and political instability would plunge Africa and South Asia into chaos. The eruption of the Arab Spring last winter was a test case of sorts for a Europe made frantic by the possibility of 1 million Africans landing on its shores.
Some 57,000 migrants turned up on Lampedusa Island as a result of Arab Spring, and the Italian detention center there was allowed to overfill, triggering protests and clashes between authorities, detainees, and locals angry that the influx had scared off tourists. Despite recent rhetoric about pan-European solidarity in sharing the burden of large refugee flows, neighboring countries largely resisted helping Italy and Malta, who squabbled over who should take in the migrants to process their claims to international protection.
“The Arab Spring showed how the system we are building is still really a draft of what we should do, and there are a lot of flaws,” says Seline Trevisanut, a legal specialist in boat migration at the University of Cagliari. “The Arab Spring showed the weakness of our system.”
Experts and rights groups say that politicians dodged the issue, framing the people fleeing Libya and Tunisia as illegal immigrants rather than refugees seeking asylum. The reluctance to open the doors to migrants, in the long run, is likely due to concerns about climate change.
“European politicians are beginning to wake up to the idea that climate change may produce large numbers of people moving,” says Khalid Koser, a migration expert at the Brookings Institution. “One doesn’t want to speculate about climate change, but there could be millions of people affected. And if you have very large numbers of people moving, I think you’re going to face a real crisis.”
“I guess this is seen as [European politicians] putting up the first barrier to that,” he continues. “‘If we’re soft on this, how are we going to be tough when large numbers of people arrive in the next five years?”
Rather than play defense, says Trevisanut, Europe must develop a shared strategy for managing not only the borders of individual sovereign states, but also the continent’s external border. Member nations have been reluctant to cede power over their own borders, but the focus on antiterrorism measures since 9/11 has added a new urgency to the matter. Trevisanut believes that the same level of urgency must be applied to protecting migrants and upholding Europe’s obligations under international and human rights law as the system evolves. Instead, the discourse has increasingly linked the flow of people across borders with criminality and terrorism.
In recent years, European nations have tried to stem the influx of migrants largely by striking deals for stronger border enforcement in other countries; Spain has worked with Senegal and Mauritania, for example, and Italy with Libya and Tunisia. In practice, this has outsourced responsibility for protecting refugees to regimes that, in the extreme case of Libya under Gaddafi, have no respect for human rights (in Libyan detention centers financed by Italy, migrants were reportedly beaten, tortured, and forced to drink their urine). The European Court of Human Rights is expected to rule this year on whether Italy has violated its international obligations with the so-called “pushback” agreement, which allowed Italian authorities to intercept migrant boats in international waters and turn them over to their Libyan counterparts.
Other EU member states have also been implicated. A September report from Human Rights Watch chronicled the “inhuman and degrading” treatment of migrants held in sewage-infested, overcrowded Greek detention centers. The report, The EU’s Dirty Hands, took Frontex to task for knowingly turning over migrants, in its first RABIT operation, to Greek authorities it knew did not comply with EU rights standards.
Because Frontex will likely continue to rely on member states for detaining and processing the migrants it picks up, these types of problems are “a good example of what we may expect in the future,” says Niels Frenzen, a law professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in refugee law. Rather than offering a remedy for the shortcomings of EU border enforcement, Frontex appears to be subject to its same failings. What’s more, he says, its status as a background player is actually blurring responsibility and access to information. That was also the conclusion of a recent study commissioned by the EU Parliament, which blasted Frontex, arguing that its status as a depoliticized coordinating agency has given it too much autonomy and shielded it from “proper democratic scrutiny.”
As Frontex’s influence grows, Frenzen says, so does the need for its transparency.
In the meantime, the factors driving migrants to the open sea are not likely to diminish, linked as they are to stability and opportunity across Africa. In a squatter building occupied by hundreds of refugees in a suburb of Rome, 37-year-old Yakub Abdelunbi explains why he left his home in Darfur eight years before. “I don’t love Europe,” he says. “I love my country. But I can’t be there or they’ll massacre me.” Abdelunbi fled first to Libya, then invested in an inflatable boat with 17 others and set out for Lampedusa Island. Unlike thousands who followed, they made it.
This reporting was funded with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting