The cost of dreaming of a better life in Europe

EU must act now to prevent further loss of life post-Lampedusa

02.12.2013 - 10:11

Three hundred and sixty four people drowned off the coast of Lampedusa this October. Pregnant women, children, men – weak and strong alike were claimed by the sea after their ship tragically sank. Amnesty International has been calling for the European Union (EU) to urgently act to avoid future loss of life, but what has really happened since 3 October? 

After the EU summit on 24 and 25 October, EU leaders said that “determined action should be taken in order to prevent the loss of lives at sea and to avoid that such human tragedies happen again.” To achieve this, a Task Force for the Mediterranean was set up to identify “priority actions for a more efficient short term use of European policies and tools”. Naturally, this decision has shaped expectations.

The task force will report to the Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) council later this week ahead of the European Council meeting on 19 and 20 December. It’s a real chance for the EU to substantially respond to the challenges highlighted once more by Lampedusa. Concrete actions are essential if we are to start saving lives now and not postpone this critical issue until next year.  

Until now, responses to the challenges raised by irregular migration flows have been increasingly focused on policing the EU external borders, rather than protecting people and saving lives. In mid-October, Bulgarian authorities announced a plan to manage migration flow by building a 3 metre high wall covering 30 kilometres of the border they share with Turkey. Recently, Spanish authorities added razor sharp barbed wire fencing to the Spain-Morocco border, with El Pais reporting that 20-30% of migrants that cross this fence are turned away without proper asylum procedures.  And push backs continue across the Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian borders, despite the European Commission’s reassertion in November that such actions are illegal. 

Most of the people currently travelling to Europe across the Mediterranean are Syrian, Somali and Eritrean refugees fleeing war or persecution in their countries of origin, who are legally entitled to receive protection. They will continue to attempt to reach safety, whether it’s through boarding an unsafe and overcrowded boat or climbing a barbed wire fence. If the EU is to remain a credible human rights actor, and live up to the premises it was founded upon, it must not allow serious human rights violations to occur at its borders. Each life lost is an irreversible symbol of our collective failure to save those most in need of protection. 

To prevent further loss of life migrants need safer routes, not dangerous hurdles pushing them into the hands of smugglers. We need more search and rescue, and we need EU law to send a clear message that rescuing migrants in distress is an international obligation. In fact, we need a fundamental turnaround of EU policy away from an approach that contributes to putting people’s lives in danger. 

While the media focus during the weeks surrounding the Lampedusa tragedy may have moved on, the EU should still be in the spotlight for failing to fulfill the promises it made in its aftermath. What we’re seeing so far seems to be the opposite of these promises – yet more emphasis on preventing irregular migration and closing borders. 

The stark truth is that with every day of inaction that goes by, more lives are at risk. We were promised a task force that would deliver concrete actions before Christmas. Anything less than that will be a betrayal of all those who look to Europe for protection.