LONDON – In the last year, more than 4,000 men, women, and children have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe. Their tragic deaths have done nothing to slow the human tide, which is swelling by the week, as smugglers on the coast become increasingly brazen and cruel. Thousands of migrants have been rescued from the frigid waters since the beginning of this year alone.
Against this backdrop – and that of the fear sown by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen – the European Union is set to develop a new – and critically important – agenda on migration. When EU commissioners gather to debate how to proceed, they must overcome the temptation to grasp at short-term, knee-jerk solutions, and instead develop a truly creative, comprehensive plan of action both at home and abroad.
The last time Europe faced such a turning point on migration was in 2011, when the Arab Spring triggered a flood of new arrivals fleeing violence and chaos in North Africa. But the moment for bold action – the creation of a Mediterranean Marshall Plan that would channel investment into immigrant integration – passed without being seized. Instead, the EU made a few bureaucratic tweaks to its asylum system and consumed itself with debates about non-issues, such as migrant “welfare cheats.”
In 2014, the EU’s emergency funding for migration and asylum totaled a mere €25 million ($28 million) – a pathetic exercise in collective action, albeit one supplemented by funds from member states. Last fall, Italy’s bold Mare Nostrum sea-rescue operation, which had saved hundreds of lives, was replaced by a far feebler EU initiative that has struggled to carry out its mission.
Adding to the problem is an imbalance of commitment and compassion within the EU itself. Sweden and Germany have taken in the majority of asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere, while most other EU member states have admitted few or none. The UK, for example, offered just 90 resettlement spots for Syrian refugees last year. (By contrast, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are spending billions of dollars to host nearly four million refugees.)
Greece, Italy, and Malta have borne the brunt of the impact of accommodating new arrivals, with all of the financial, social, and political costs this entails. As a result, the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean is placing EU solidarity under serious strain.
Continued inaction will not make the problem go away, nor will it benefit European leaders in their next domestic elections. “Cracking down on smugglers,” the go-to solution for many in the EU, will take many years to have an impact, given the instability of many North African governments. Meanwhile, further destabilization of the Middle East – a very real prospect – could compromise the security of tens of millions of people who, under international law, would have a legitimate right to claim asylum.
A better, more active approach is needed. The immediate necessary response is resource-intensive but operationally viable: a robust joint EU sea operation with an explicit rescue mandate.
When asylum seekers reach European shores, the EU should take collective financial and administrative responsibility for processing and accommodating them, regardless of where they disembark. And it should take solidarity a step further when it comes to Syrians, equitably distributing the responsibility to host them across all member states.
Meanwhile, in order to lighten smugglers’ boats, the EU should commit to resettling many more than the 30,000 Syrian refugees it has pledged to accept thus far. A number closer to 250,000, at least, would seem fair – given the millions being sheltered by Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.
Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers should intensify talks with African countries in order to establish new, legal, and safe means for those at risk who want to cross the Mediterranean. This could entail extending humanitarian, labor, and family-reunification visas, with applications processed overseas. The EU should consider longer-term goals, like creating a common Mediterranean market to allow North African economies to grow, eventually transforming the region into a destination for migrants rather than a transit zone.
Most important, Europe needs to strengthen itself from the inside out. The continent is in desperate need of a dramatically different approach to diversity. The countries of the EU have two options: They can either make a vain attempt to revert to outdated, mono-ethnic models of statehood, or they can accept diversity with the realization that their national cultures will not only survive, but flourish.
Doing so would in no way entail compromising any core European values. But it would require a commitment to respect all who adopt those values, regardless of their race or religion. Some see the Mediterranean as Europe’s soft underbelly. But it is the failure to build stable, diverse societies that is the continent’s true Achilles heel.
Peter Sutherland is United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.