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.)

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  • FABRIZIO TASSINARI is Head of Foreign Policy Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of Why Europe Fears Its Neighbors. HANS LUCHT is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of Darkness before Daybreak: African Migrants Living on the Margins in Southern Italy Today.
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