The Deadly Mediterranean Route EU Seeks to Ward Off New Refugee Crisis

The number of migrants crossing the dangerous Mediterranean route has risen significantly since the beginning of the year. European officials fear the situation could further deteriorate. So far, though, Brussels hasn't been able to agree on a solution.

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During a meeting with senior security officials in the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building, a week ago, Angela Merkel didn't mince words. While praising the Schengen zone for the border-free travel it has granted Europeans, the German chancellor also said that it could only work if the European Union's external borders were adequately protected. Schengen, she said, means that Germany's neighbors are no longer Austria or Poland, but Russia, Turkey and Libya.

The 2015 refugee crisis, Merkel said, taught us "fundamental lessons," such as the fact that EU external border protection wasn't good enough. The situation has since improved dramatically, Merkel said, "but we haven't yet achieved everything that we need."

The chancellor, unfortunately, is correct. Merkel has promised that the refugee crisis seen two years ago will not be repeated: Never again will Europe see an uncontrolled inflow of millions of people. The refugee deal with Turkey is working, we are repeatedly told, and the crisis is over. That, though, could turn out to be wrong.

With German voters set to go to the polls on Sept. 24, Merkel's re-election campaign hinges on there not being a repeat of the refugee crisis, even if it's not as substantial as the 2015 influx. But west of the closed Balkan route, a new migrant stream has been growing since the beginning of the year. From Jan. 1 to April 23, 36,851 migrants have followed the central Mediterranean route from North Africa to Italy. That represents a 45 percent increase over the same period last year, when a record 181,000 people crossed the Mediterranean on the route. "The situation is worrisome," says Izabella Cooper, spokeswoman for the European border control agency Frontex.

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Even more concerning is the fact that summer hasn't even begun. Experience has shown that most migrants only climb into the boats once the Mediterranean grows calmer. Italian authorities estimate that a quarter million people will arrive on its shores this year. "There are challenges ahead," says a senior German security official.

Berlin is particularly concerned because it's not just Africans who are taking the Mediterranean route to Italy. An increasing number of South Asians are as well, which could mean that the route across the sea to Italy is now seen as a viable alternative to the defunct Balkan route. People from Bangladesh now represent the second largest group of migrants that have crossed over from Libya this year. From January to March 2016, by contrast, exactly one Bangladeshi was picked up on the route. Pakistanis have also chosen the Mediterranean route more often in recent months.

Officials in Berlin and Brussels have thus far sought to play down the numbers. "We can't yet say if it is a temporary upward tick or if it is a trend," says one EU diplomat.

Thus far, the majority of newcomers have remained in Italy. But German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), nevertheless applied with the European Commission for permission to extend German border controls on its border with Austria beyond the May expiration date. On Tuesday, that permission was granted, with the Commission saying that the controls must be lifted by the end of the year. German conservatives are likewise demanding that controls be established on the country's border with Switzerland.

Restrictive Interpretation

The EU is currently working on an emergency plan in case a "serious crisis situation" develops. The discussions are focusing on a scenario under which more than 200,000 refugees would have to be redistributed each year.

An unpublished report by Malta, which currently holds the rotating European Council presidency, calls for a more restrictive interpretation of asylum rights in such a case. In other words, should too many migrants begin arriving, the EU will increase efforts at deterrence. Controversial proposals for reception camps to be established in North Africa also remain under discussion.

Most of those currently fleeing from countries like Nigeria, Guinea and the Ivory Coast are doing so to escape grinding poverty and in the hopes of finding better opportunities in Europe. Very few of them have much chance of being granted asylum. That reality has made redistribution within the EU even more difficult. According to current law, those with no chance at asylum are supposed to be sent back home as quickly as possible and not sent to other European countries.

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The key to Merkel's solution for the 2015/2016 refugee crisis was the EU-Turkey deal. The agreement called for Turkey to improve monitoring of its Aegean Sea coastline, which was the jumping-off point for the Balkan route via the Greek islands. At the same time, a more rigorous deportation policy, which meant that refugees who reached Greece would be sent back to Turkey, discouraged many from making the journey in the first place. That deal, in combination with border closures, has meant that the route has largely been abandoned.

That strategy, however, won't work for the Mediterranean route to Italy -- neither the increased coastal monitoring nor the rapid deportations. There is no country, after all, to which the migrants could be deported. Almost all of them depart from what was once Libya, today a failed state where the government, clans and other power-hungry groups are engaged in constant combat.

The country is widely viewed as a basket case with little prospect for a stable government in the foreseeable future. One German government official says that "no positive trends" can be observed. The problem, though, is that there can be no solution to the current refugee influx without Libya. Fully 90 percent of the migrants who have set off across the Mediterranean for Italy started their journeys from the Libyan coast.

Low Risk, High Earnings

Without a functioning state in Libya, however, there can be no effective border controls. The situation is completely chaotic, notes a late-January internal report from the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya (EUBAM), which is currently working out of Tunis. Migrant smuggling, the report notes, is an income source for organized crime organizations "with extremely low risks and high earnings."

Nevertheless, the Libyan government has presented the EU with a list of needs for the upgrading of its coast guard, including 130 vessels, some of them armed, along with additional equipment. The EU border control agency Frontex is skeptical, saying that before any equipment is delivered, measures must be in place to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni reached an agreement in February with Fayez Serraj, the prime minister of Libya's unity government, for millions in aid to strengthen the country's coast guard. But Serraj doesn't even have control of the entire capital, Tripolis. And the coast guard that Italy is supporting sometimes works together with migrant smugglers.

Because protecting the coast is unfeasible, the focus has shifted to returning migrants to North Africa. Months ago, the German government discussed the establishment of reception camps not in Libya, but in its neighboring countries of Tunisia and Egypt. But Tunis and Cairo demurred.

Might such camps, then, be built in Libya after all?

On a recent Monday afternoon, the Home Affairs Committee in European Parliament met to review the situation in Libya, a country that has become so dangerous that many government officials, NGO workers and politicians no longer feel safe traveling there. The committee had invited Annemarie Loof, operations manager for the aid organization Doctors without Borders, and the pictures she brought along to show to the parliamentarians were difficult to look at.

Left in the Lurch

They showed overcrowded internment camps, children sleeping on bare concrete and undernourished migrants with skin diseases and signs of having been tortured. "Refugees are big business in Libya," Loof says. "If you pump more money in, things will only get worse."

That, however, is exactly what the Italians are planning to do. The country feels as though it has been left in the lurch by Brussels and on the eve of the EU summit in Malta in early February, Rome reached an agreement with Libya on the establishment of "temporary reception camps" to which refugees can be deported. Initially, they are to be financed by Italy, but Libyan officials will be solely responsible for operating them. Loof's report focused on the conditions that might develop in such camps.

"It would be crucial for the Europeans to inspect the camps to guarantee humane conditions," says Martin Kobler, head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya. But nobody is willing to do so. It is simply too dangerous.

An alternative to improving Libya's coast guard would be that of monitoring the country's southern border to prevent migrants from entering Libya in the first place. Recent media reports have indicated that some in Brussels have begun mooting the establishment of a mission to do so. But the idea has not found widespread favor in the EU capital and Berlin, too, is opposed. "I don't think a European police mission is realistic at the present time," says one German official.

One reason, to be sure, are the challenges associated with doing so. Libya's southern border runs for 1,500 kilometers through an extremely hot desert controlled largely by local clans. But Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn believes that, despite the difficulties, exactly that strategy should be pursued. "Europe has to help Libya control its southern border," he says. "That is the gate for migration to Europe. It isn't just when the refugees head out to sea."

"The refugees must be stopped before they reach the Sahara," agrees Monika Hohlmeier, a member of European Parliament from the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU. "It's all a vicious circle: The more people we save in the Mediterranean, the more refugees end up in the migrant smuggling apparatus or die on the way." A strategy paper produced by the European Political Strategy Centre, a think tank under the authority of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, reaches the same conclusion. By limiting itself to merely saving migrants in maritime distress, Europe has "unintentionally encouraged smugglers to adopt new strategies enabling them to reap more benefits, while placing migrants even more at risk," the paper, published in early February, reads.

Brutal Treatment

Frontex has noted that migrant smugglers have recently become even more unscrupulous. They have, for example, begun packing up to 170 people onto inflatable rafts that can only safely transport 15 passengers at most. It isn't possible for such an overloaded vessel to make the entire trip across to Italy, nor is that the intention. The engines generally only have enough fuel to make it out of Libyan waters, with smugglers relying on the migrants being picked up by a passing ship. If not, well that's just bad luck. More than 1,000 migrants have already lost their lives trying to reach Italy this year.

Migrants who have been saved have told Frontex officials about the brutal treatment meted out by the smugglers. Those who refuse to board the overflowing boats in Libya are often forced to do so at gunpoint. Some are even shot or murdered. Frontex spokeswoman Cooper says that the border agency has repeatedly discovered migrants with gunshot wounds among those who have been saved from the Mediterranean.

It is a dilemma: The Europeans cannot simply stand by as increasing numbers of people drown in the Mediterranean. But the more active NGOs are in pulling people out of the water, the more cynically the smugglers take advantage of the help they provide. It has become something of a "taxi service to Europe" that has increased the incentive to risk the journey, complain high ranking German officials.

The Italian judiciary has gone a step further and accused some aid organizations of abetting human smuggling. "We have proof that individual NGOs maintain direct contact with migrant smugglers in Libya," claims Public Prosecutor Carmelo Zuccaro, based in Catania in Sicily. "Telephone calls from Libya are made directly to these NGOs. The direction of travel to their ships are illuminated with spotlights."

For years, Italy has been among the European countries most affected by the refugee influx. The government in Rome, led by Paolo Gentiloni, is under extreme pressure. The hostels are overcrowded and there have been violent protests against newcomers in some Italian communities -- and populist politicians have been highlighting the issue ahead of upcoming mayoral elections. The head of the right-wing populist party Lega Nord says that "the invaders must be stopped and the illegals should be sent away." His party currently stands at around 13 percent in nationwide polls. Meanwhile, Senate Vice President Luigi di Maio, of the Five Star Movement, the strongest political party in the country, has been blasting away at the NGOs who save drowning refugees at sea.

Solidarity in Name Only

The Italian government has launched a variety of measures in an effort to regain control over the situation, but the number of new arrivals continues to climb. Shortly before Easter, Rome quickly issued a decree allowing for the more rapid deportation of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected. In addition, Prime Minister Gentiloni and Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano are seeking to sign agreements with the most important countries of origin and transit countries in Africa. The president of Niger, for example, was recently promised 50 million euros during a visit to the Italian capital in exchange for tighter controls on the country's border with Libya.

The Italians do not believe that there will be a rapid breakthrough on the distribution of refugees throughout Europe. Recent years have shown repeatedly that solidarity exists in name only. In 2015, other EU members promised to take 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece. Thus far, however, only 16,000 have been resettled.

During a breakfast meeting a week ago Wednesday, EU ambassadors from the 28 member states studied a six-page compromise paper presented by the Maltese council presidency: "The Solidarity Component of the Dublin System Reform." The paper envisions a system whereby Europe will classify immigration levels into three categories: normal refugee flows, strong increases and massive inflows in a crisis. Talks have focused primarily on the second category, with the third being classified as a "serious crisis situation."

Germany is insisting that as many European countries as possible accept refugees. To encourage countries like Hungary and Poland to accept such a plan, a compensation mechanism is under discussion which would include financial incentives for accepting refugees. Countries that accept more than their quota would receive 60,000 euros per refugee within five years, whereas those who don't meet their quota would have to pay the same amount.

As a further concession, the proposal envisions the suspension of the distribution mechanism when more than a certain number of refugees per year need to be distributed -- the number 200,000 is currently under discussion. The measure, though, remains bracketed in the paper, which is EU diplomats' way of indicating that the debate has not yet been settled.

No Solution in Sight

In the case of a "serious crisis situation," the paper calls for "simplified legal procedures," which likely means that only the minimum standards laid out in the Geneva Refugee Convention would apply.

The proposals in the paper will not provide relief in the immediate future, which is why the Commission is urging EU member states to speed up deportations. Officials estimate that around 1 million people who sought asylum in 2015 and 2016 saw their applications rejected, meaning they were required to be sent home. But since 2015, not even half that number have been deported. Repatriations to African countries are often unfeasible, says one EU diplomat. "Either the countries refuse to take their citizens back or the refugees who are to be deported have long since disappeared."

Meanwhile, demands are growing in Berlin for more intense monitoring of the German-Swiss border. Germany's federal police force recorded 1,880 illegal entries through the border during the first three months of this year. It's not a huge number, but it has more than tripled relative to the same period in 2016 despite the lack of stationary border controls of the kind seen on the German-Austrian border. In other words, the true number of illegal entries is likely much higher.

"If the number of migrants coming across the Mediterranean continues to rise, we won't be able to avoid controls on the German-Swiss border," says Armin Schuster, a German parliamentarian with the CDU. Fellow conservative Stephan Mayer is demanding that the border be "tightly controlled, unilaterally if necessary, without EU permission."

Rigorous repatriations to source countries, border controls, measures to fight the causes of flight: Berlin and Brussels are deploying a broad variety of steps to prevent a new refugee crisis. The deepest crisis of Merkel's tenure taught the chancellor an important lesson: When a large influx of migrants begins pressuring Europe's external borders, Germany cannot look away. "We Germans," Merkel said in late August 2016, "ignored the problem for too long."

Today, government officials speak of the crisis as a "time when we weren't sufficiently aware of the problem." They say, however, that "we have learned our lesson." That seems to be the case. There is no lack of awareness for the problem this time around. But there is nevertheless no solution in sight.

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