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Fortress Europe

Behind the Continent's Migrant Crisis

A group of 106 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy wait to be rescued by the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station some 25 miles off the Libyan coast, October 4, 2014. Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

Two weeks ago, 1,200 people died en route to Europe. They were mostly migrants, fleeing war and poverty in North Africa, who drowned when their boats sank in the Mediterranean. The death toll shined a light on Europe’s immigration policies. Will the continent work to ensure the safe arrival of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and other conflict-stricken countries? Or will it continue to look the other way as the body count builds in the Mediterranean?

Europe has faced this choice before. In October 2013, a boat carrying some 500 Libyan migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Italian coast guard was able to save only about 150 passengers. In response to the tragedy, the Italian government decided that it had a responsibility to act. It launched a vast search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, from the Roman-era name for the Mediterranean, “Our Sea,” intended to prevent the deaths of migrants traveling from Africa to Europe. And it succeeded, demonstrating that if Europe actually made the effort to protect migrants, it could. Through Mare Nostrum, Italy saved more than 130,000 people, at a monthly cost of $12 million. (Not everyone could be saved, unfortunately: an estimated 3,500 people still drowned during this period.) Laura Boldrini, a former spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, put the price at roughly $650 per saved life.

A migrant sits on the deck of an Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol boat after a rescue operation to save a group of around 180 illegal immigrants, September 25, 2005.
A migrant sits on the deck of an Armed Forces of Malta offshore patrol boat after a rescue operation to save a group of around 180 illegal immigrants, September 25, 2005. Darrin Zammit Lupi / Reuters

Apparently, however, that was too much to pay: citing its high price tag, the Italian government shuttered the project after just a year. Italy had expected that Mare Nostrum’s costs and responsibility would be shared by other states in the European Union. After all, the high influx of migrants was, in many ways, a continent-wide problem. But that didn’t happen. A replacement EU mission, Operation Triton, has a third of the budget, fewer assets, and a

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