The latest string of migrant disasters in the Mediterranean Sea has led to a surge in discussion and debate, as European leaders accused of failing their moral duties struggle to decide the best course of action.
A worsening situation in Libya, continuing dire conflict in Syria, and a dictatorship in Eritrea are among the crises that keep migrants coming in their thousands. Smugglers charge extortionate prices to cram hordes of people into old and unsafe fishing vessels, knowing their passengers will accept any level of risk in the desperation to escape their homelands.
According to the International Organization for Migration, Syrians and Eritreans accounted for almost half of the 170,000 people who reached Italy by boat in 2014.
An Italian search and rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum was ended late last year. The program was credited with saving at least 100,000 migrant lives, but was shut down amid claims the operation was too expensive and only encouraged more people to attempt the dangerous crossing. But the closure of Mare Nostrum did not lead to any drop in numbers — just an exponential increase in migrant drownings. So far this year more than 1,700 migrants have died at sea, compared to 56 in the same period last year.
Italy had repeatedly issued calls for the rest of the EU to contribute to their rescue efforts. An EU-funded operation known as Triton replaced Mare Nostrum, but functions with one-third of the funding and operates within a much more limited area.
Following the biggest ever migrant disaster on Sunday, when at least 800 people drowned after their ship capsized, EU ministers announced a 10-point action plan including pledges to expand Triton's funding and equipment, extend its operational area, and launch a systematic effort to find and destroy the ships used by smugglers. An emergency EU meeting will be held in Brussels on Thursday. Ahead of this, VICE News spoke to Melissa Fleming, head of communications for the United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR), to ask how she thinks the migrant situation reached such a crisis point and what she thinks the EU should do.
VICE News: How would you describe the average migrant who attempts the journey to Europe?
Melissa Fleming: In most cases there is very little difference between migrants and refugees. Most of these people are desperate and fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria.
What do you see as being the solution to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean? Who needs to take responsibility and what do they need to do?
The absolute priority needs to be saving lives. The Italian search and rescue operation has ended but we've seen similar numbers of people attempting the crossing, but many, many more deaths. There are at least 1,700 people who have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year. The numbers are dramatic. They point to a missing rescue operation.
When the Italian operation Mare Nostrum operation stopped it was replaced by an EU border protection operation whose role was surveillance at Italy's borders [rather than] going out and actively rescuing people. UNHCR is calling for the restoration of a robust search-and-rescue operation as an immediate measure.
There are other things that you could do. Obviously [for] refugees [it would be better] if there was an alternative to get to the safety of Europe through legal avenues. So we are calling on countries to increase the numbers of refugees that they will resettle. If you take the Syrian situation we've asked for at least 10 percent of the population of all the 4 million people in the region to be resettled because they're in such dire need. We need pledges to be realized and we also need other measures which would really make a huge difference, like family reunification. Many refugees have families in Europe and other countries around the world and if they could just join their families [through family reunification schemes] rather than just risk their lives to try to get to them across the Mediterranean this would save so many lives.
Also students, there are so many students — particularly when I think of Syrian refugees — who are languishing in the neighboring countries, who in the future could participate in the rebuilding of Syria. If they could have student visas to study in Europe this could make a tremendous difference for the future. [Young Syrians] feel they want to study, they want to move on. And the list goes on of the things that could be done to alleviate the suffering of those who are risking their life to cross the Mediterranean. UNHCR presented this list to the European Union also six months ago. Now we're saying: "This is a wake-up call." We have to prevent any further tragedies and let's find a way to make this stop.
Did you think that the EU's 10-point plan — announced on Monday — went anywhere towards combatting the crisis?
Yes. We welcome the plan, but we do think it needs to be expanded towards a more robust refugee operation. We also think that the countries of Italy, Greece, and Malta, are bearing the greatest burden on their shores. [Migrants] need to be received somewhere, but what we're proposing is that once they arrive, refugees should be evenly distributed among EU countries. Right now the [receiving] countries are overwhelmed.
What's your opinion on the Dublin regulation — which says that each asylum application needs to be registered and processed in the first European country the person arrives in?
First of all we're saying that the European asylum system is dysfunctional. Depending on where you arrive you might have a very sophisticated asylum system where you will get strong attention and good protection and a chance to restart your life. If you land in another country you might end up in a jail, a detention center, on the streets, in work conditions sometimes worse than what you fled from. So this has to be changed. Dublin III does have provisions that have not been implemented for equal distribution and responsibility sharing. We're asking for those to be recognized and implemented, and not for just the border countries to be taking in all the migrants.
Obviously this disaster was only the latest of many tragedies in the Mediterranean. Do you think we've now reached the stage where there have been enough to spur people into action or do you think the deaths will continue?
I hope [it's enough]. Right now I'm sitting on the island of Crete where I just spent the day interviewing a survivor of a September disaster where 500 people died. A young woman was one of 11 survivors of this disaster and saved herself and an 18-month-old baby and is recognized here in Greece as being brave and a hero. But 500 people died on that boat. I looked at the press coverage and it was about one day of press coverage. This was a criminal act. The boat was rammed and 500 people died.
Every few months we're saying this was the greatest ever disaster but nothing happens. Now we have reached maybe 850 people dying in a single boat. If this is not the wake-up call for Europe to turn around and assume their responsibilities than I don't know what is.
You said that the disaster in September was a criminal act. One of Sunday's ship captains has now been charged with reckless homicide, along with a crew member. Do you think there's any point in going after the captains or the smugglers?
Yes, absolutely. The way traffickers are treating human cargo is inhumane. They are responsible for their deaths, carried out for their own profit.
There's been a lot of discussion of push and pull factors. Do you have any suggestions of what can be done to decrease the push factors in the countries that migrants are leaving?
Prevent conflict, stop conflict, look at the root causes, look at the countries where people are coming from instead of sitting and complaining that people are coming. In the countries that are complaining [about] people coming, who has been actively participating in resolving the conflict or the economic situations that are driving so many people to risk their lives to reach Europe?
What would be your response to Europeans who say that it's not their problem?
Well we've seen a lot of irresponsible political rhetoric which is making its way into populist media in Europe and giving people the license to say not only is this not our problem, but even go back to where you came from, and having very little empathy. This is irresponsible rhetoric and it's not recognizing that people are fleeing and taking to the seas well knowing that when they get on those boats their lives could end in the next hour or few days. Basically the more people who put themselves in those people's shoes the better, the more empathy they'll have towards reaching solutions at the root and helping people who are in need of safety and protection.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd