A decade ago this year, the head of the European Union’s executive branch stood, visibly shaken, before rows of coffins holding the corpses of migrants drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some of them, small and bone-white, contained the bodies of infants and children.
“That image of hundreds of coffins will never get out of my mind. It is something I think one cannot forget. Coffins of babies, coffins with the mother and the child that was born just at that moment,” Jose Manuel Barroso, then president of the European Commission, said in 2013.
More than 300 people died on October 3, 2013 after a fire broke out on a fishing boat that had set off from Libya on the world’s deadliest migration route. The boat, which carried almost 500 people looking for better lives in Europe, capsized only hundreds of meters (yards) from shore.
“The kind of tragedy we have witnessed here so close to the coast should never happen again,” Barroso said. The EU must boost “our surveillance system to track boats, so that we can launch a rescue operation and bring people back to safe grounds before they perish,” he added.
Nothing of the sort will be considered by EU leaders at a summit next week. Indeed, almost a decade on, little has improved.
About 330,000 attempts were made to enter Europe without authorization in 2022 — a six-year high. The International Organization for Migration says more than 25,000 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.
The search and rescue mission launched in response to the Lampedusa tragedy was shut down a year later over concern that the Italian navy ships only encouraged people to set out in the hope of being plucked from the sea.
Civilian boats run by charities have been hounded and impounded by governments for trying to save lives. The EU provides vessels and equipment to the Libyan coastguard to prevent people leaving, and Turkey and several other northern African countries get financial support.
At their February 9-10 summit, the EU’s 27 heads of state and government are set to renew a call to beef up borders and pressure the often-impoverished countries that people leave or cross to get to Europe, according to a draft statement prepared for the meeting, seen by The Associated Press.
The leaders will give “full support” so that the border and coastguard agency Frontex can deliver “on its core task, which is to help Member States protect the external borders, fight cross-border crime and step up returns” – the EU’s euphemism for deportation.
The EU will “enhance cooperation with countries of origin and transit through mutually beneficial partnerships,” said the text, which could change before the summit. It did not list the ways the partnerships might be beneficial for those countries, only the means of persuasion that could be used on them.
The EU’s aid budget should be put to “the best possible use” to encourage countries to stop people leaving, it said. Those that don’t accept their nationals back would find it harder to get European visas. Bangladesh, Gambia, Iraq and Senegal are already being monitored.
After a meeting last week of interior ministers, the EU’s Swedish presidency said that “both positive incentives and restrictive measures are required. We must make use of all relevant policy areas in this regard, such as visa policy, development cooperation, trade and diplomatic relations.”
Border fences are back on the table, even though the European Commission previously declined to help member countries pay for them, arguing they were not in line with “European values.” Several EU countries, notably Hungary, Austria and Slovenia, have erected border fences after well over one million migrants entered Europe in 2015, most of them war refugees from Syria and Iraq.
A Dutch government position paper circulating in Brussels said that “all types of stationary and mobile infrastructure should be part of a broader package of border management measures, while guaranteeing fundamental rights as enshrined in EU and international law.”
The land border between EU member Bulgaria and Turkey, from where many migrants set out, is of particular concern. Asked about it last Thursday, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said only that there isn’t enough money to help countries build fences.
The commission wants to speed up asylum processing at the bloc’s borders, and has named a “Returns Coordinator” to expedite deportation. More than 900,000 people applied for EU asylum last year, sparking a border backlog.
In a letter to the leaders, President Ursula von der Leyen said that pilot testing will be done in coming months on “an accelerated border procedure,” including the “immediate return” of those not permitted to stay.
This “Fortress Europe” approach has evolved because of the EU’s failure to agree on the answer to a vexing question: who should take responsibility for migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, and should other members be obliged to help?
The question has rarely arisen over the last year as millions of Ukrainian refugees were welcomed into Europe amid an outpouring of good will, notably from countries like Hungary or Poland that are staunchly opposed to helping take care of migrants from Africa or the Middle East.
The commission’s Pact on Migration and Asylum, unveiled in 2020, was supposed to resolve the problem but little progress has been made. Now, EU officials say that members might endorse the reform plan before the 2024 elections usher in another commission.