Will the European Agenda on Migration help stop the humanitarian crisis?

17-year-old Mzafar Hassan was playing football outside his house in the city of Erbil, the Kurdish capital situated in Northern Iraq, when a car stopped in front of his house. “I saw a group of five or six men getting out of the car. They wore all black and had their faces covered, then they entered my house,” tells Mzafar . He walked there to find out what was happening. “When I was just a few metres away I heard my parents screaming.” Mzafar ran to his friend’s house. He told his friend’s mum what had happened and she went along with her husband to check Mzafar’s house. “She came back crying. She looked at me and said: your parents have just passed away… I started crying and did not stop for three days.”

The masked men belonged to one of the militias and knew Mzafar as well. Mzafar’s uncle decided to send Mzafar to a safe place somewhere in Europe, and put the boy in a friend’s lorry. “My uncle and his friend told me to never get out of the lorry; I had to eat, sleep, and go to the toilet inside that lorry.” He did not know where that lorry was taking him. After a 10-day trip, alone, Mzafar arrived in Cardiff.

Mzafar is now 23 and is one of more than 140,000 refugees living in the UK . Migration is not a new phenomenon. It has been happening throughout history and it has notably increased in recent years due to wars and unstable situations in Middle Eastern and African countries. Similarly, there is more than one way for migrants to reach Europe, but the recent events in the Mediterranean Sea, particularly the death of more than 800 people in one single day last month, have highlighted the terrible ordeal that thousands of migrants go through in the hope for a better life .

According to the UNHCR, a record 219,000 people boarded smuggler boats to cross the Mediterranean in 2014 and 3,500 died. So far in 2015, 62,500 migrants have reached European shores and at least 1,800 have died .

The increase in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean has been caused, among other factors, by the replacement of the search and rescue operation carried out in the Mediterranean Sea. Until late 2014, the Italian Navy carried out an operation called Mare Nostrum, covering a vast portion of their territorial waters. Since then, the EU’s border agency, Frontex, took control of the search and rescue operations with an operation called Triton, which only operates out to 30 miles off the Italian coast . The new European Agenda on Migration is now looking to restore the level of intervention by tripling funding for operation Triton . However, Amnesty International says that “the Agenda fails to explicitly make clear how far the operational area of Triton will be extended to ensure that it will cover those areas in the high seas where most refugees’ and migrants’ boats get into difficulties.”

As part of the Agenda, the European Commission has also set the EU’s Migrant Relocation Scheme in which Member States will be asked to accept a resettlement quota of 20,000 migrants over the next two years. This measure expects to spread the burden of processing asylum claims in the EU with which countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta are struggling to cope. This quota will be determined according to GDP, population size, unemployment rate, and past numbers of asylum seekers and resettled refugees .

However, this number compares unfavourably with the 380,000 refugees from Syria alone that the UNHCR recommends be resettled by the end of 2016. Amnesty International says that “the scale of this quota is currently inadequate” and claims that “EU countries should be looking to take around 100,000 of these refugees.” Marzia Rango, Research Officer at International Organization for Migration Research Officer, adds that no quota can ever stop a humanitarian crisis: “Quotas can contribute to address the crisis in a way that EU countries share responsibilities for those wishing to claim asylum in EU territory, and in a way that better respects the dignity and human rights of very vulnerable people.”

Although EU leaders will vote on this proposal in the summit on 25th June, the UK, Ireland and Denmark have already opted out. Under the Geneva Convention, refugees fleeing from persecution or life-threatening violence have a right to claim asylum in Europe, however, the UK and the other opposing countries can use the EU’s Dublin regulation as a legal basis to deport illegal migrants and failed asylum seekers. This regulation states that asylum claims should be handled by the member states in which the asylum seeker first arrives, but a quota system might put a limit on such expulsions.

Home Secretary Theresa May wrote in The Times: “we must adopt the right approach…the suggestion by the EU’s High Representative, Federica Mogherini, that ‘no migrants’ intercepted at sea should be ‘sent back against their will’ would only act as an increased pull factor… and encourage more people to put their lives at risk”. The Home Secretary encourages the EU “to work to establish safe landing sites in North Africa, underpinned by an active programme of returns”.

This idea is similar to how Australia deals with migrants who are smuggled by traffickers. Australia intercepts boats and holds all asylum seekers in offshore processing camps. They also tow boats back to the country they came from, or send asylum seekers back in lifeboats. However, this measure has been critised by human rights groups and the UN.

The European Commission also wants to focus on tackling smuggling networks. EU Defence Ministers have already approved the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation to identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers. The EU now seeks a UN Security Council resolution, which would give it a legal basis to use military force . Amnesty International warns that “there is a danger that this will lead to a mission shift among assets (ships and aircraft) deployed outside of Triton away from search and rescue functions.”

But smugglers only represent a single part of the larger problem that actually has its root causes far away from the Mediterranean Sea. Smuggling has become a highly profitable business because of the tough living conditions that migrants face in their home countries and because of the difficulties to travel legally or to apply for asylum. According to the UNHCR, there are ten million refugees worldwide and no EU country is in the UN’s top-ten list of countries that receive refugees. The EU-28 hosted an overall number of 626,710 refugees in 2014, but only Germany and Sweden granted asylum to more than 50,000 people.
The European Agenda now expects “to send a clear message to citizens that migration can be better managed collectively by all EU actors… by having a strong common asylum policy as well as a new European policy on legal migration.” The UNHCR welcomes the proposal and adds that, without an improvement in such policies, “refugees will continue to be left with few options… the increase in international efforts to crack down on smugglers and traffickers is unlikely to be effective.”

The majority of those who apply for asylum in Europe come from Syria. More than 4 million Syrians have been forced to flee the country due to the civil war that started in 2011. 1.8 million Syrians are in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan where the situation is reaching a critical phase. “Humanitarian assistance (in Lebanon and Jordan) is on decline and there are no indications of alternative sources of funding from development budgets,” says a report by UNHCR. Jordan is decreasing the flow of refugees into its territory and is starting address the long-term consequences of the crisis on its social and economic development. In Lebanon, the country hosting more Syrian refugees than any other, insufficient and reduced funding is affecting the viability of aid work carried out by the UNHCR.

The ongoing war in Syria, the unstable situation in neighboring Iraq where Mzafar came from, the repression in Eritrea and the terrorism threat in Nigeria and Somalia are only some of the examples representing a reality which, today, is far from being improved. Thousands of migrants put their lives at risk every year to seek a better life; some by boat, others, like Mzafar, come through different routes.

800 people had to die in the Mediterranean Sea in one single day to push the EU to start taking action to stop a humanitarian crisis which is not new. However, evidence shows that the EU needs to take further action regarding resettlement and asylum applications. In addition, the EU should collaborate with the international community to elaborate a long-term plan which goes to the origin of this humanitarian crisis, well beyond the Mediterranean Sea.