Far From Safe Shores: Europeans Have No Real Solution for the Migrants Flooding Their Borders

Leaders of the European countries the asylum seekers were heading for called for a quick EU response, but given the present political atmosphere even greater rescue efforts are not a given.

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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Migrants on a boat fleeing North African turmoil cheer as they approach the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, March 7, 2011.Credit: AP
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

An Eritrean infant, six months old, was found in an inflatable boat over the weekend south of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Half her face was covered with serious burns. On the same boat, which left Libya two days earlier, were some 70 Eritreans, many of whom were injured when a gas cylinder blew up as they were held by the smugglers in Libya before getting on the boat. Along with them was the body of a 25-year-old woman who did not survive the journey.

The fate of these survivors, covered with burns, who managed to survive and reach the Italian shore was so much better than that of the estimated 800 people who were packed into a fishing boat in Tripoli last weekend and left in hope of reaching the shores of Europe. Hope has run out on finding any more of them alive after the boat overturned, in the worst maritime tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea in many years.

This tragedy, which occurred only a few days after some 400 other migrants drowned in a similar accident – in which they saw a ship nearing, hoped to be rescued and the boat flipped over – has led to a harsh response from all over Europe. Pope Francis called on the international community to act with determination and quickly to prevent such tragedies from occurring again, the European Union’s foreign minister and the prime ministers of Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece called for swift action by the EU to prevent further tragedies. The EU countries’ interior and foreign ministers will meet Thursday for an emergency summit in an attempt to find a solution to the humanitarian crisis.

But crossing the Mediterranean is only one of the five main routes the refugees and migrants use in their attempts to reach the territory of the EU. Among the various routes, the central one for migrants and asylum seekers without visas to reach the EU is crossing the sea from Tunisia, Egypt and in particular Libya. They head for Malta, Sicily and Lampedusa – and the constant troubles on the other routes have made this one even more popular.

There are now over 100,000 refugees in Libya after the “Arab Spring,” according to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and hundreds of thousands of other migrants are in the country, hoping to find a better life on the northern side of the Mediterranean. The International Organization for Migration says that in 2013 there were some 700,000 migrants in Libya, and estimates from last summer were that some 600,000 people were waiting there before trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The disintegration of the central government in Tripoli has prevented any attempt to force the authorities in Libya to stop the rickety ships from sailing, as various countries in the EU have attempted in the past – and the Libyans have so far received harsh criticism from human rights organizations. The coast guard in western Libya, where most of the boats with the migrants leave from, has only three operational patrol boats, another is broken and four have been sent to Italy for repairs.