On Sunday, March 26, the Tunisian coast guard said at least 29 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Italy. These deaths are just the latest tragedy for migrants attempting to reach Europe.
The month before, more than 100 migrants were feared dead after the boat they were travelling in across the Mediterranean sank while trying to land in Italy. Just over a week earlier, at least 73 migrants were feared dead when their boat sank off the coast of Libya.
Even when the boat used to make the crossing does not sink, the journey can still be deadly. In early February nine migrants, including a baby and his mother, died from cold and thirst on their journey across the Mediterranean.
Crossing the Mediterranean to Italy is the deadliest migrant crossing in the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that more than 100,000 refugees arrived in Italy by boat in 2022 and almost 1,400 migrants died trying to make the crossing that year.
Too many people are dying while trying to reach Europe.
UNHCR is calling on the EU to ensure:
✔️ More search and rescue capacity
✔️ Safe ports for disembarkation
✔️ EU-wide agreement for disembarking rescued peoplepic.twitter.com/ctvD0Jgm8A
— UNHCR Representation for EU Affairs (@Refugees_EU) March 27, 2023
Despite the risks faced by migrants, the European Union (EU) has been taking an increasingly hard position against migration.
After a decrease during Covid years, migration to the EU has been increasing again; there were 960,000 asylum applications in the EU last year, a 50% increase from 2021 and the highest amount since 2015 (which saw 1.2 million applications). There were 330,000 irregular border crossings last year as well – the most since 2016.
This doesn’t include Ukrainians, who are not included in the figure due to the EU’s open-door policy for them. The temporary protection scheme gives Ukrainians the right to live, work, access education, and healthcare in the EU.
Those from elsewhere have not been met with an open door. In the same month the Taliban captured Kabul and took control of Afghanistan, the EU issued a statement saying they would work to stabilise the region and to ensure humanitarian aid would reach the vulnerable population.
However, it also said it would work to “prevent illegal migration from the region.”
After a summit in Brussels last month, Euronews reported that EU leaders struck a “hard-line” on migration. This included using visa permits, trade, and development aid as leverage with third countries to reduce border crossings and to increase the number of unsuccessful asylum seekers returned.
The EU has been increasingly strengthening external borders, with European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, saying after the summit that “we will act to strengthen our external borders and prevent irregular migration.”
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Border fences have become one of the most controversial topics. Some EU leaders, like Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have been very vocal in calling for more fences.
However, the use of EU funds to pay for fencing along borders remains, at least for now, a step too far, the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell saying “fortress Europe” is not the answer.
Instead, the EU agreed to fund vehicles, cameras, and watchtowers.
Austria’s Nehammer viewed this as a win and as indirect funding for border fences. He was reported by Politico as saying that now that a country like Bulgaria could use EU money for border personnel and vehicles, it can use its own money “to strengthen the border fence.”
Whether fortress Europe is the answer or not, the length of fences along the EU border have rapidly increased, rising from just 300 km in 2014 to more than 2,000 km in 2022.
Europe is at the forefront of those erecting fences to seal off borders — but is that strategy a solution to global migration?
The EU and the Schengen zone are encircled by 19 border fences, with a combined length of 2,048km compared to just 315km in 2014. pic.twitter.com/lZ1Y1cRpK6
— DW News (@dwnews) March 25, 2023
Another key push was to try and create a more unified approach to migration, with von der Leyen adding that “all these topics should be in an integrated package” and that procedures “should be the same all over the European Union’s external borders.”
Following on from the Brussels summit, in mid-March the European Commission proposed a series of measures to form a strategic policy for border management. It provided a shared policy framework and guidance on migration until 2027, steering the work of the more than 120,000 European Border and Coast Guard officers, combined, from member states and Frontex. They are the EU’s border and coast guard agency, separate from individual EU countries’ respective border and coast guard forces.
The policy emphasised improved border controls, more advanced technology, increased intra-EU cooperation and more cooperation with third countries.
In December, Frontex was accused by Human Rights Watch of being complicit in abuse due to their cooperation with Libyan authorities on preventing migration. Migrants who have been apprehended in the Mediterranean by Libyan authorities and returned to Libya have reported being beaten, arbitrarily detained, and forced to buy their freedom.
Individual countries have also been taking a harder position on the migration debate.
In Italy, new laws have been passed requiring NGO search and rescue ships to sail to designated ports rather than the closest one after rescuing migrants. After rescuing migrants from one boat they can’t search for other migrant boats in distress either, instead having to return straight to a designated port.
According to TIME, rescue organisations condemned the move, saying it would cause more deaths in the Mediterranean.
Since being elected in July 2019, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has made the country’s policies towards migrants harsher. He is said to have turned a blind eye to illegal pushbacks of migrants.
Within the EU, the migration debate is polarising countries with cracks in European unity. Many countries are at odds over what should be done.
As the debate continues, the threat from climate change risks even more people being displaced.
It is uncertain where the EU’s position on migration will end up. However, so far, with the exception of Ukrainians, the EU and individual countries have opted for a policy increasingly opposing migration. What is certain is that while the EU continues to debate, migrants keep on risking their lives to get to the EU.
According to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 469 migrants have died or gone missing crossing the Mediterranean so far in 2023.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Refugees and Migrants aboard a fishing boat driven by smugglers reach the coast of the Greek Island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, Lesbos Island, Greece, Oct. 11, 2015. Featured Photo Credit: Jim Forest.