Photo Gallery: Europe's Refugee Catastrophe

Foto: Loukas Mastis/ dpa

An Unending Refugee Tragedy Europe's Path to Deadly Partition

Germany and its European Union partners want to prevent further refugee dramas in the Mediterranean Sea. But a look back at the policies adopted after the 2013 tragedy in Lampedusa shows they have made a terrible situation even deadlier. By SPIEGEL Staff

The images and words are so very similar. Back then, the German chancellor said she was "deeply upset" -- today she is "appalled." Back then, the president of the European Commission said he would never forget the dead, and that something had to change -- today he claims: "The status quo is not an option." Back then, Europe's interior ministers spoke of a horrific event -- today it's an "utter horror.'" The gap between then and now is 19 months. And several thousands of dead in the Mediterranean.

Then was the night of Oct. 3, 2013. A fire broke out on an old cutter that had set out from the Libyan city of Misrata. Near the small Italian island of Lampedusa, more than 500 people went overboard, most of them from Somalia or Eritrea. Not even one-third survived. The coffins in Lampedusa's airport hangar became a symbol for Europe's "shame," as Pope Francis put it.

At a meeting in Luxembourg held after the disaster, EU interior ministers spoke of a "wake-up call" and immediately established a working group. European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström argued that Lampedusa was an "image of the Union that we do not want." In Berlin, the German government declared that "given a human catastrophe of this size," it was self-evident that current refugee policies should reexamined. Shortly thereafter, German Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to a summit of EU heads of government in Brussels, where "decisive measures" were promised to avoid a repeat of the catastrophe.

And then? Then the catastrophe repeated itself. A dozen times. Between then and now. In the space of a few days in April, 400 people traveling from Africa to Europe drowned in the Mediterranean, then a boat with over 800 refugees capsized -- and only 28 survived.

Graphic: Deadly Seas

Graphic: Deadly Seas


Interior and foreign ministers of the EU member states met once again in Luxembourg this week. But they didn't create a new working group -- after all, they already have one. The president of the European Council convened a special summit that met on Thursday. In Berlin, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière promised that, given recent events, the EU couldn't simply return to the regular order of business.

The words and images are so very similar. And if you listen to what people are saying, you could be excused for thinking there was no "then."

Wars, famines, poverty, unscrupulous human traffickers and borders on lock-down -- the refugee drama has many sides. It's not easy to determine who is responsible for the death of so many people and who carries what share of the blame. But any investigation would lead to the capital cities of Europe.

There's plenty of blame to go around here. People are in dire need, but politicians are instead pulling the brakes on effective measures to help them or, worse, are involved in political deal-making at their expense. Borders have been drawn firmer than ever. And even initiatives with the best intentions have been allowed to peter out. At times it feels as though European governments have simply accepted the fact that Lampedusa will be repeated.

Through their reporting in Brussels and Berlin, the analysis of internal transcripts and interviews with diplomats and government representatives, SPIEGEL's journalists reconstructed a timeline of policy developments dating from the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy to the most recent catastrophe.

Oct. 8, 2013

Five days after the Lampedusa tragedy, the EU's justice and interior ministers convene a "Mediterranean Taskforce." Cecilia Malmström, a political scientist from Sweden who has been the EU's commissioner for home affairs since 2010, takes over the leadership of the body. Malmström grew up in Gothenburg and France, and has written books about migration and Spanish politics. Now she is tasked with managing the refugee crisis for the EU.

Malmström seems determined to turn the asylum system inside out. Together with the European External Action Service, the EU's diplomatic corps, the commission works on a series of reform ideas that they soon after present to the member states. In an internal paper, the authors write that one of the main reasons people risk their lives on the dangerous trip to Europe is that fact that refugees have access to few legal channels with which to seek protection in the EU.

Brussels suggests the member states should issue humanitarian visas, open visa centers in non-EU countries and create a humanitarian path of entry into the Union. The Commission and External Action Service also plead for more pathways for professional migration into Europe. Given Lampedusa's impact on the public consciousness, a breakthrough seems possible. Malmström's team gives the member states the catalog for evaluation.

Germany's response is muted. The German delegation thanks the Commission for its "solid" groundwork. But it rejects nearly all of the suggestions for legal entryways into Europe. In the medium-term, visa centers and alternative models of professional migration are also impossible, according to the German government. It is fundamentally unclear, they argue, how the Commission's suggestions would help "manage the stream of refugees."

Today, Interior Minister Maizière says that the EU Commission did too little on the subject of refugee policy. But in the fall of 2013, it was the German government that was holding things back. After Germany's response, the notion of introducing legal ways into the Union disappears. Now other measures are discussed in the "Mediterranean Taskforce": The group suggests launching operations against the human traffickers and monitoring the borders more strongly.

The EU had previously roped neighboring countries into controlling migration. Adjacent states are meant to prevent refugees from even getting to the European border and after Oct. 3, this policy gains steam. The EU works on a mobility partnership with Tunisia, which offers the country financial compensation in exchange for a strict control of migration. Even cooperation with Eritrea, a military dictatorship, is no longer ruled out.

Oct. 11, 2013

Another boat capsizes between Malta and Lampedusa with 250 people on board. Up to 50 people die, including 10 children.

Oct. 18, 2013

Italy launches the Mare Nostrum, or "Our Sea," rescue mission, which is meant to prevent refugees from drowning. The navy and coast guard now patrol a 43,000-square-kilometer (16,602 square mile) section of the Mediterranean with deep-sea vessels, helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft.

Nov. 19, 2013

The European External Action Service discusses using the military to combat irregular migration. In one memo to member states, it argues that a military operation against smugglers would be an "impressive symbol of determination and of solidarity." But there are doubts. The EU diplomats fear "significant legal challenges" and worry about negative press coverage. The media could report about "warships against refugees."

In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry categorically rejects the use of military against traffickers. A classified internal document describes Germany as "very critical" of the idea. The reasons are varied: By pursuing the traffickers on the sea, it argues, "only the symptoms would be tackled." And anyway, it argues, it's totally unclear what would happen to the refugees after an intervention. The German navy, the office recommends, should provide backup support at most, by, for example, providing broad situation overviews. The sailors, it argued, do not have the "police training" necessary to hunt the traffickers.

In the meantime, Bulgaria has started with the construction of a barbwire fence on its border to Turkey, in order to keep the refugees out. Luise Amtsberg -- the spokesperson for refugee policy of the Green Party in the German parliament, the Bundestag -- criticizes the EU for closing off its borders. "People are being downright forced to flee via the Mediterranean."

In Brussels, the High-Level Working Group on Asylum and Migration meets. Germany is represented by officials from the foreign and interior ministries. The Commission has also invited a staff member of the semi-governmental Organization for Migration (IOM). He attacks the EU member states in the meeting: Europe's refugee policy is too focused on deterrence, he claims, which only strengthens trafficking.

The EU representatives answer evasively: Berlin believes the solution of the refugee problem lies outside of Europe. The Commission complains that dealing with Africa is difficult. The EU has invested heavily in Africa, but Africa has done little.

Feb. 20, 2014

In the Committee of Permanent Representatives in Brussels, the body comprised of the heads or deputy heads of the member state diplomatic missions to the EU, disagreement emerges about how to fairly distribute refugees across the Continent. Thus far, the refugees had been forced by the so-called Dublin Regulation to stay in the place where they first set foot on European ground. The countries on the EU's external borders, especially Italy and Greece, have been rebelling against this for a long time. In the committee, Bulgaria and Malta also push for fair burden sharing. The United Kingdom is firmly against it. The Netherlands and Denmark also decline to discuss quotas -- at least for now.

May 5, 2014

After the capsizing of two refugee boats near the Greek Island of Samos, at least 22 refugees drown, including four children.

July 8, 2014

At a meeting of European ministers of the interior and justice in Milan, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner deceives her colleagues by suggesting a resettlement program. According to her suggestion, refugees from war zones would be brought to Europe with the help of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and distributed according to a firmly established quota. This, she claims, would spare them the trip across the Mediterranean. The majority of the EU states, including Germany, reject the "Save Lives" initiative. A meeting attendee describes "strong, indignant criticism" of the Austrian government.

Italy, the six-month rotating president of the European Union at the time, tries to smooth out the bumps. According to one memo, the ministers were determined to overcome "current polarization along principles of solidarity and responsibility" in Europe. Italy supports Austria's idea for a resettlement program.

In the meantime, Malmström loses patience. At a meeting of the Strategy Committee on Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum (SCIFA) her agency warns the member states that they need to finally act. The "repeated misreading of their own talking points" needed to stop, it argues.

Aug. 27, 2014

Malmström speaks with Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano about the future of the maritime rescue initiative. Rome had tried and failed to get European participation in the Mare Nostrum mission. Only Slovenia had helped its neighbor with a patrol boat. Germany rejects the project -- a large rescue operation in the Mediterranean would only bring more refugees to Europe, de Maizière argues. He will later describe Mare Nostrum as "subsidizing traffickers." In Brussels, people claim that the Germans put pressure on Italy to end Mare Nostrum. "The German government had bombarded accusations at the Italian Interior Ministry on just this topic," reports a high-ranking diplomat.

Several EU member states would prefer to completely abstain from any maritime rescue in the Mediterranean, but government heads fear public outrage if Mare Nostrum is cancelled without a replacement. The compromise: The Italian program is replaced by Triton, an operation of the European border agency Frontex, which is the first line of deterrence against migrants.

Triton is limited to rescuing people in maritime distress within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast. With a monthly budget of €2.9 million ($3.1 million), the entire EU spends three times less than what Italy paid for Mare Nostrum. Refugee- and human-rights organizations warn that the Mediterranean could once again become a mass grave. Amnesty International argues that "'Triton' is therefore the wrong answer to the refugee and migration crisis in the central Mediterranean."

Meanwhile, the Italian government relies on civilian shipping to rescue refugees. The defense minister claims civilian ships have "a duty" to respond to emergency signals in their vicinity. Nobody reckons with the fact that some shipping companies are now circumnavigating the most popular refugee routes with their cargo ships in order to save costs. From time to time, the UNHCR warns, civilian boats won't transmit their coordinates to avoid running into problems and having to change their course to save drowning people.

Sept. 11, 2014

An estimated 500 refugees drown on their way from Egypt to Malta. Only 10 people are saved. Survivors claim that the smugglers deliberately sank the ship.

Oct. 9, 2014

In the Bundestag, German Interior Minister de Maizière derides Mare Nostrum as a "bridge to Europe." In a letter to Malmström he welcomes the planned dissolution of the program thanks to Triton and pushes for "better surveillance of external borders," "a stronger fight against people-trafficking groups" and a "stronger cooperation with countries of origin." The letter doesn't mention maritime rescue. De Maizière does, however, hold out the prospect of a temporary distribution of refugees throughout Europe, causing a fuss. Thus far, Germany had spoken out in opposition of the quota system.

The EU interior and justice ministers decide shortly thereafter on a strategy for the fight against irregular migration predicated on the work of the "Mediterranean Taskforce." On the sidelines of the meeting in Luxembourg, a conflict apparently breaks out. Interior Minister de Maizière is said to have sharply attacked his Italian counterpart, Alfano. One participant claims he accused Italy of allowing refugees to continue on to Germany without being controlled, in violation of European agreements. De Maizière considers this to be an attack on the Schengen territory. "He reprimanded Alfano like a schoolboy in front of everyone," one Austrian interior minister claims.

Nov. 1, 2014

Rome puts an end to Mare Nostrum, in what de Maizière now emphasizes is an "entirely Italian decision." According to the Italian authorities, Mare Nostrum saved the lives of about 166,000 refugees in 2014.

At the meeting of the Strategic Committee of the Council for Immigration, Frontiers and Asylum in Brussels, an envoy from Frontex emphasizes that the Triton Operation is meant to "secure the maritime frontier" and "combat criminal human smuggling."

In a confidential report to member states, Frontex predicts that because of the switch to Triton, less refugees will chance the risky trip across the Mediterranean. This analysis will prove to be incorrect. In the first two months of 2015 alone, twice as many migrants will arrive in Italy as in the previous year.

Feb. 9, 2015

Over 330 refugees die, according to estimates, near the Italian coast. Four heavily overloaded inflatable rafts from Libya containing over 400 people run into distress in freezing temperatures.

Feb. 27, 2015

A little less than one and a half years after the disaster off the coast of Lampedusa, Latvia, which has assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union, produces a progress report on European migration policy. In it, the Frontex Triton mission is praised as a "tangible expression of European solidarity."

March 12, 2015

At a meeting of European interior and justice ministers, Italy calls for a "radical transformation in the way the EU views" migration. It calls for non-EU states, particularly Egypt and Tunisia, to participate in actions to intercept migrants off the coast of Libya. The Italian government's internal paper states that this could help serve as a deterrent for refugees.

April 19, 2015

In the worst refugee catastrophe yet, 800 people are believed to have died off the coast of Libya in the Mediterranean Sea.

At 6 p.m., Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi calls a meeting of his interior, foreign and infrastructure ministers. Afterwards, he also calls European Council President Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He demands a special summit on the mass deaths. "After the attack on Charlie Hebdo," he says, "you reacted immediately. You all showed solidarity and you met in Paris. But nothing happens when hundreds of people die?"

April 20, 1015

In Berlin, the national executive committee of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union meets. "We owe it to ourselves to do more here," the chancellor says. She doesn't even try to hide her lack of suggestions. She says the fact that Libya lacks state structures present a major challenge. "The first thing we need to do is to identify the right contact there," she says. The party only offers anything solid on one point: that refugees whose asylum applications get rejected must be deported swiftly. "We've all failed," Germany's European Union commissioner, Günther Oettinger says on the sidelines of the meeting.

The EU's foreign and interior ministers meet in Luxembourg. German Interior Minister De Maizière claims that the EU is not responsible for the refugee tragedy. The justice system of each EU member state needs to pursue human traffickers, he says, in the same way that Italy is successfully combatting the mafia.

The Commission brings a 10-point plan to the meeting, which is agreed to without any major discussion. The plan provides additional funding, ships and equipment for the Triton mission. The aim is to conduct more operations to rescue people who are distressed at sea. The proposals aren't anything new: The Commission had already presented them twice to the European Council, but the leaders of the member states on the powerful Council rebuffed the EU officials and their ideas.

April 21, 2015

The permanent representatives of the 28 EU member states meet in Brussels. The doors are barely closed when the familiar dispute breaks out anew. Several ambassadors criticize the 10-point plan. Some complain about the high cost. Others claim that an expansion of the EU's Triton mission would create new incentives for traffickers, so-called pull effects. And others take issue with the idea of replacing the EU's Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that refugees may only apply for asylum in their country of arrival, with a quota system.

A few EU governments are still of the opinion that the refugees are the sole problem of the countries that border the Mediterranean. One of the biggest opponents turns out to be the British ambassador, who has been ordered by London to apply the brakes to anything that could in any way jeopardize Prime Minister David Cameron's re-election.

The Italian ambassador pushes back, but he only gets isolated support, including that of his German counterpart. German Ambassador Reinhard Silberberg retorts the Briton's comment by saying that after a humanitarian catastrophe like this, you can't thwart the rescue of refugees using economic arguments. "You are mad," Silberberg says.

April 22, 2015

Early in the morning, de Maizière consults with Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen prior to a meeting of Merkel's cabinet. They both consider moving German navy ships to the Mediterranean area.

There's still the question of whether the mission will continue as Triton or whether it will be given a new name. The current mission may also be expanded, because the Italian government is pushing for it to be given a more robust mandate. Rome wants to have the ability to intercept refugee boats with the help of the military in areas near the Libyan coast or even destroy them before they are able to leave the country. The German government is currently reviewing whether or not German military ships could participate. For that to happen, though, they would need the Libyan government's permission, which hasn't been provided yet. The alternative would be for the United Nations to issue a mandate for the EU mission. That kind of mission would require the same approval from the Bundestag was necessary for Germany's deployment to fight piracy along the Horn of Africa. "Does the EU want to wage war against refugees?" asks Ska Keller, a German member of the European Parliament with the Green Party.

Addressing the Bundestag, de Maizière speaks of images that have been "burned into our hearts," before quickly getting to the point. Traffickers, the interior minister says, are "dirty criminals" who have created a business worth billions on the suffering of people. He also abandons any resistance toward humanitarian relief efforts. "Sea rescue is the first, most important, most urgent thing and it must begin without delay," he says. He adds that he wants refugees to be distributed throughout the EU in the future on the basis of a quota.

Selmin Caliskan, the head of the German chapter of Amnesty International, criticizes the government's response so far, saying, "Politicians are trying to divert attention away from their shared responsibility for the deaths."

The European Commission wants to open a reception center in northern Niger as a pilot project. If EU representatives interviewing potential migrants at the site determine that their reason for fleeing fulfils the criteria for asylum, they would also be offered safe passage to a country within the EU. Depending on their qualifications, those seeking to migrate primarily for economic reasons would be recommended to EU countries with jobs to fill. Or they would be sent back to their country of origin.

April 23, 2015

The leaders of the EU member states converge in Brussels for a special summit. They are dismayed and shaken by the ship accident. They know they will have to undertake determined action to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future. Much of what happened -- the images, the words - are reminiscent of the EU summit that took place after the refugee drama in October 2013.

But there is one thing which has changed. It's no longer as easy to shirk responsibility for what is happening. The blame game has already begun.

EU Parliament President Martin Schulz has been highly critical. "In parliament, we have called for legal immigration possibilities dozens of times. And dozens of times we have failed because of resistance from the leaders of the EU member states and their interior ministers," he says.

Vincent Cochetel, the head of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, sounds almost resigned when he speaks about the summit that took place in the last few days. "There's no lack of ideas and concepts for a fair refugee policy in Europe," he says. "But there is a lack of will and courage to implement them."

By Matthias Gebauer, Horand Knaup, Peter Müller, Maximilian Popp, Jörg Schindler and Christoph Schult