Mediterranean crisis: EU must protect those fleeing conflict – Peter Sutherland

‘In addition to resettlement, EU states could issue, in large numbers, a variety of visas’

The summit of EU leaders on Thursday did little to erase the moral stain that is the Mediterranean refugee crisis. The conclusions they drew focused heavily on meeting one of their common obligations – to combat human smuggling – and precious little on an equally important one to which they are committed under international law – to provide protection to those fleeing conflict.

More people have perished in the Mediterranean this year than died on the Titanic; the rate at which people are drowning is 30 times that of last year.

What impact the EU’s decisions will have on this is uncertain. Some of the people crossing the sea do not qualify for protection and do not have a right to be in Europe – that is clear. But many of them – perhaps about half, judging from UN estimates – have a legitimate right to international protection. The EU on Thursday barely addressed the question of how to provide this.

The headline that emerged from the summit was that Europe would triple the budget of Operation Triton, which was launched last year to patrol the Mediterranean Sea, replacing the heroic Italian naval effort known as Mare Nostrum.


Many countries, including Ireland and the UK, yesterday rushed to commit naval vessels and other equipment to Triton. But there is a crucial difference between Triton and Mare Nostrum: the latter’s main goal was to save lives, while the former seems designed primarily to choke off smugglers.

Earlier this week, the head of Frontex, the EU border agency that oversees Triton, stated explicitly that the operation’s goal was not to save lives.

Who could doubt that cracking down on smugglers is important? But it is only one of the things that must be done – and if the EU only does this, it will cause more harm than good.

Leaving North Africa alone to deal with the entire refugee burden from conflicts like those in Syria and Eritrea not only could destabilise governments there, but is certain to make it harder to secure their co-operation in the EU’s anti-smuggling efforts.

First principle

The EU needs to make sure that its first principle in the Mediterranean is saving lives, and that a robust search-and-rescue operation has this as its explicit mandate – an idea that was rejected on Thursday.

The argument against this is that it will serve as a “pull factor” for more asylum seekers to seek to cross the Mediterranean; but the moral cost of inaction is too high and there is little proof that the absence of a rescue operation has served to deter asylum seekers.

In parallel, the EU must create greater capacity for protection – and safer avenues to access it. The simplest and fastest way to achieve this is by meaningfully expanding the number of refugees Europe agrees to resettle directly from UNHCR-run camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere.

These are people who have been screened, pose no security threat and contribute to European economies. On Thursday, EU leaders could not even agree to admitting 5,000 resettled refugees in an orderly fashion; yet last year EU states took in several hundred thousand asylum seekers in a costly, disorderly way – by forcing most of them to attempt dangerous border crossings before hearing their cases.

In addition to resettlement, EU states could issue, in large numbers, a variety of visas – humanitarian, student, work – and implement innovative means like private sponsorship of refugees, wherein NGOs and individuals take responsibility for assisting and supporting refugees after their arrival.

By providing asylumseekers with alternatives to illicit and dangerous routes, the EU would undermine the smugglers’ business model.

Meanwhile, showing greater generosity towards those fleeing life-threatening conflicts would allow the EU not only to meet its legal and moral obligations, but also to lay a more solid foundation for partnership with African countries – co-operation that will be indispensable to choking off smugglers and traffickers.

If the EU merely tries to close off the unsafe, illegal routes to Europe without opening up legal ones, then it will be shunned by its counterparts. The EU also needs to revisit the linchpin of its common European asylum system – the idea that the country in which an asylum seeker first arrives is responsible for both processing and hosting him or her.


This approach has proven untenable and has sown profound distrust and anger among EU member states. Southern states feel understandably aggrieved that they are on the front lines; Sweden and Germany in particular, where the majority of asylum seekers ultimately settle, correctly believe their burden is disproportionate.

Meanwhile, the majority of member states take on few if any refugees – the UK has accepted just 143 Syrians.

Without a truly common European approach to the issue, and in the absence of mutually beneficial co-operation with Africa, the crisis will only get worse.

Among the victims will be not only those swallowed by the Mediterranean, but also Europe’s ability to uphold the rule of law. Political extremism already is growing in much of Europe; we cannot give it another boost through craven inaction. Peter D Sutherland is UN special representative for migration and development