The peak season for irregular migration in the Mediterranean Sea (April to September) has begun in disgrace. On April 19, as many as 800 people drowned when a boat from Libya sank on its way to Italy. Only 28 people survived what is thought to be one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in modern history.
As EU member states hold urgent discussions on the crisis taking place on Europe’s shores, one of the survivors told Italian prosecutors that as many as 300 people were locked in the ship’s hold when the ship sank.
Last weekend, the Italian coastguard rescued around 10,000 people in response to dozens of SOS calls. Of that number, some 400 migrants died in capsized boats.
Before this latest tragedy, thousands of mostly sub-Saharan refugees, asylum seekers and migrants had been braving wintry conditions off the coast of Libya, producing a record death toll this year.
In 2014, during the same time period on the same migration route, 17 people died.
That means that the current number of deaths is 53 times higher than the same time last year, according to Amnesty International, which launches a report on the migration emergency at the end of April.
Stories of mass deaths at sea and images of overcrowded rickety boats carrying the desperate and the destitute are becoming uncomfortably familiar.
However, officials and observers have been warning for months that 2015’s patterns of migration in the Mediterranean will be very different to previous years.
Conflicts raging throughout the Arab world, as well as instability in Libya, threaten to induce even bigger migration flows than the 218,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014.
Some are looking for a better life, others are fleeing war and repression. The result is unprecedented mix of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. And more and more are trying to reach Europe.
Security officials and border agencies have also warned of the evolution of smuggling trends, with smugglers becoming increasingly cruel, and terrorists making use of porous borders in order to carry out attacks on mainland Europe.
The year began with several reports of a new trend, so-called ‘ghost ships’, in which smugglers operating on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast were buying rusty old cargo vessels, loading them with hundreds of desperate Syrian refugees and then abandoning them at sea.
When the European Parliament gathered to debate migration in mid-January, the main focus was on two ghost ships, the Blue Sky-M and the Ezzadeen.
Everyone on board was rescued, but evidence of a new modus operandi amongst human smugglers working the Mediterranean route sparked concerns that more lives were at risk.
A report by the European Union’s border agency Frontex claimed that “the large profit associated with low risk for the main smugglers, are likely to trigger similar incidents in the future.” The story made headline news around Europe.
However, a programme by German broadcaster ARD revealed that the first ship, the Moldovan-flagged Blue Sky-M, had not been abandoned by its crew, nor was it in distress.
The incident, ARD claimed, showed “how far Europe’s border guards go in the propaganda battle against illegal migration”; commentators suggestedthat these ‘ghost ships’ were simply being used to justify renewed border control.
Frontex operations chief Klaus Rösler later admitted that new facts had presented themselves but, he claimed the “phenomenon [of ghost ships], the criminal conduct…is still true.” There have been no reports of ghost ships since.
But EU officials continue to blame “people smugglers and human traffickers” for the “continued loss of migrants’ lives at sea.” There have also been recent reports of armed smugglers threatening and even firing shots at rescuers.
Martin Xuareb, director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a private, Malta-based search-and-rescue operation which assisted some 3,000 migrants during the peak smuggling season last year, told Equal Times that “traffickers feel they can operate with impunity, so they’re getting bolder and bolder, and increasingly shameless.”
But human rights groups have argued that border policies, like the shift from Italy’s sea rescue mission Operation Mare Nostrum to Frontex’s scaled-down ‘substitute’ Operation Triton, are also responsible for deaths.
Human Rights Watch claimed this week that a “staple of EU rhetoric these days is the need to stop traffickers and smugglers, when the primary objective is really stopping their passengers.”
This “consciously myopic, one-dimensional, and…inadequate” response was on the one hand important for targeting criminal networks exploiting vulnerable people, it argued, but also reflected an almost Orwellian doublespeak: border control under the guise of humanitarianism.
Europe has started cracking down on smugglers via intelligence-gathering operations like Mos Maiorum and the new mainland police operation launched by Europol earlier this year.
But counter-terrorism has resulted in another security-first approach to migration, particularly given the terror threat to Europe’s southern borders as demonstrated by the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Syria, Iraq and more recently, Libya.
In mid-February, IS released a video from Libya showing the grisly beheading of 21 Christians on the shores of the Mediterranean.
In a horrific moment of sanguine symbolism, it showed the blood of victims flowing into the Mediterranean — presumably to show Europe that IS is closing in.
According to a document purportedly written by an IS propagandist, Libya’s “long coastline…looks upon the southern Crusader states, which can be reached with ease by even a rudimentary boat. If this was even partially exploited and developed strategically, pandemonium could be wrought in southern Europe.”
This is not the first alleged link between IS and Mediterranean smuggling routes. According to a Buzzfeed report, IS networks may have already taken advantage of refugee boats leaving Turkish ports in order to ferry its fighters into Europe.
A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine also suggested that Italy’s refusal to register Syrian refugees arriving on its shores, an apparent attempt to reduce its responsibilities as per the Dublin Agreement, are opening the door to terrorist infiltration.
But these reports are far from conclusive. According to Sasha Jesperson, a research analyst on organised crime at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, there is no real evidence that any terrorist organisations are using people smuggling routes.
“But this is a risk — that [routes] could be co-opted,” she admits.
Brussels is preparing several policies ahead of another unprecedented year in the Mediterranean, including outsourcing migrant processing centres and migrant patrols to “reliable” third countries like Egypt and Tunisia.
But timeliness is an issue, according to Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe.
“The EU is trying to take a comprehensive approach on this…[but] the challenge is that this crisis is happening now and EU processes tend to take along time.
“You have to get 28 member states on board,” she says, concluding that, “many of these initiatives won’t bear fruit for years.”
The context of migration in the Mediterranean might be changing — new conflicts are creating new refugees and migration flows; new border policies produce new smuggling routes – but the fundamentals remain the same.
2015 will see more migrants in unprecedented numbers and more deaths. Meanwhile, Europe will continue to look on from the other side of the sea