Advertisement Close

Tragedy on the Mediterranean: Why Europe Needs Comprehensive Refugee Policy Reform

posted on: Sep 28, 2022

Syrian Red Crescent on the shoreline of Tartous, Syria after refugee boat sinks/ Source: Syrian Red Crescent via Aljazeera

By: Norah Soufraji/ Arab America Contributing Writer

The poet Warsan Shire once wrote, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”.

Countless testimonials from refugees who risk the deadly crossing from the Middle East and North Africa in hopes of reaching Europe, echo these sentiments. The gravity of the refugee and migration crisis in the Mediterranean cannot be overstated. 

Last Thursday, another tragic sinking of a boat filled with asylum seekers from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon was found along the coast of Tartous, Syria. The investigation into the incident is ongoing with the current death toll estimated to be 94 people. This incident is not the first nor the last as long as the current refugee and migration emergency continues to be largely ignored. Comprehensive reforms by European powers are required in order for refugees to have dignified alternatives to risking their lives on open waters. Additionally, European governments must refocus their efforts to search and rescue operations rather than deterrence and surveillance. 

Crossing to Europe

The crossing to Europe is treacherous and not taken lightly. Those who attempt the crossing flee for reasons such as war, persecution, and poverty. The Mediterranean Sea has become the deadliest migration route in the world. According to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR and  the Missing Migrants Project more than 1,200 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2022. Since 2014 there have been a total of 25,000 deaths at sea that have been reported and accounted for. Actual figures are likely a great deal more. Over 2 million have made the journey since 2015.

European member states have made a grave error in prioritizing border patrol over humanitarian sea rescue. What we are seeing is a blatant shirking of obligations to maritime international law and the bulk of search and rescue operations being left up to independent NGOs. 

The 2022 infographic below breaks down migrants based on country of origin:

Source: Frontex via European Council of the European Union

European legislation safeguards the right for people to request asylum. However, there is a lack of coordination and cohesion in regards to tackling the migration issue. It is unlawful for European governments to reject asylum seekers at their doorstep. The EU states must work together to come up with a comprehensive strategy for protecting the human rights of those fleeing to Europe through the Mediterranean passage.

Organizations such as Sea Watch, which rescue migrants in the Central & Eastern Mediterranean, often have to wait days for permission to disembark to ports of safety. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), on the ground particularly in the Greek Isles, also have called for intense reexamination of best practices for tackling the refugee issue. Lack of coordination and sharing of information between government authorities often complicates rescue efforts.  

A Question of Human Rights

The issue in the Mediterranean must be approached from two fronts. First, Europe must accept that the situation is a reality. Deterrence through border patrol surveillance is not an option. In fact, the method of deterrence has only led to a surge in illegal smuggling activities. Second, developed countries must work together to ease passport requirements and determine the obstacles, underlying laws, and patterns which prevent refugees from resettling in safe ways. The migration crisis must be addressed in an orderly and dignified way. The world cannot continue to ignore the humanity of refugees and migrants fleeing the horrors of war, poverty, and persecution. 

A statement by the European Commission to Aljazeera on Aug 16, 2022 reads:

“The New Pact on Migration and Asylum put forward by the EU Commission includes a proposal for a coordinated approach to search and rescue. The EU Commission has proposed a predictable solidarity mechanism following disembarkation after search and rescue events… [to] avoid the need for ad hoc solutions” 

It is imperative that the spirit of this statement will be the guiding principle for how EU governments will confront the humanitarian needs of those fleeing to their shores going forward. The numbers of arrivals remain manageable despite what xenophobic alt-right political parties may claim. The European Union was founded upon principles of human rights and equality. An asylum framework must be recodified and made practical for today’s pressing humanitarian needs. 

The following organizations are committed to search and rescue of refugees in the Mediterranean. Please consider offering your support. 

Refugee Rescue 

Sea Watch

Doctors Without Borders 

SOS Mediterranee

Pro Activa Open Arms 

Check out Arab America’s blog here!