No Easy Fix For Europe's Asylum Policy

Malta marines negotiate with a group of immigrants in the Mediterranean Courtesy Reuters

The tragedy in the southern Mediterranean Sea in the early hours of October 3 -- in which more than 350 Eritrean refugees drowned in a shipwreck off Lampedusa, near Sicily -- shook Europe, and rightfully so. The television images and newspaper reports linger: people struggling desperately to be saved but then, exhausted, slipping through rescuers’ hands; divers entering the boat’s sunken hull to find hundreds of dead bodies packed inside; dead children wrapped in their mothers’ arms. Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said after visiting Lampedusa that the sight of rows of “coffins of children and their mothers” had “shocked” him.

But the true shock is that tragedies like this, if on a smaller scale, have been a regular occurrence for years. Estimates are that 20,000 or more men, women, and children have perished in the Mediterranean Sea in the last 20 years, including 1,500 in 2011 and 500 last year; just days after this Lampedusa sinking, another boat went down near the island, causing at least 36 more deaths. And all this is happening in one of the busiest and most highly monitored set of shipping lanes in the world, near the shores of one of its richest continents. Europe’s record is a scandal, by any definition of the term.

The question is what European policymakers will do about it. The prime ministers or presidents of all European Union member states are meeting this week to discuss policy responses, but so far there is little sign that they are prepared to reconsider the current strategy of preventing departures and barring entry. If Europe hopes to avoid further tragedies, it desperately needs to adopt an approach that focuses on safeguarding the rights of refugees rather than the sensitivities of its member states.

At the root of Europe’s asylum troubles is a type of collective action problem. Right now, people interdicted or rescued within EU territorial waters are supposed to be taken to EU shores, but it’s not entirely clear who is legally responsible

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