A year after Lampedusa : what has changed ?

OpenDemocracy (United Kingdom), 03/10/2014

Twelve months ago, Europe’s conscience was pricked by the sight of the bodies of hundreds of migrants shipwrecked at Lampedusa. But the continued stigmatisation and criminalisation of migrants has allowed securitisation to prevail over protection.

A year ago today, about 360 migrants died in a shipwreck off the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. Although one of many similar cases involving migrants trying to reach Europe, the many fatalities brought unprecedented expressions of solidarity, as well as demands for political solutions that would better protect lives.

While those who died where granted Italian citizenship before burial, those who survived were liable to face criminal charges on grounds of irregular entry—triggering an overdue debate on the criminalisation of undocumented migrants in Europe. “Lampedusa” became synonymous with the failings of the EU’s common migration and asylum policy, sparking a debate among policy-makers, civil society and the wider public.

Shortly after the shipwreck, the European Commission opened a consultation on its agenda for justice and home affairs from 2015 to 2020. Several civil-society organisations took a stance against security-focused policies, favouring more regular channels for migrants to come to Europe, compliance with human rights at the EU’s borders and access to justice if rights are violated.

When member states met in Brussels in June this year, however, the “strategic guidelines” they produced retained the emphasis on border control and co-operation with third countries. There was only a vague reference to the root causes of irregular migration and none to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which places legally-binding obligations on EU institutions and bodies, as well as member states implementing EU laws.

More surveillance

Over the course of this year, policy-makers have offered Mare Nostrum (Our Sea) and Operation Triton as possible solutions to irregular entry and the protection of lives. But are these new operations—the latter named in Frontex tradition after a Greek god, in this case the messenger of the sea—capable of upholding migrants’ fundamental rights ?

Launched and paid for by the Italian government in 2013, Mare Nostrum employs naval and coastguard vessels for search-and-rescue missions, as well as aircraft and Predator B drones to search the sea for vessels and monitor activity at Libyan ports, at a cost of €9 million a month. Although the operation has rescued about 45,000 migrants since it started last October, it does not address the wholly inadequate condition of the centres to which these migrants are taken. With a feeling that Italy faces this challenge alone, the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has been calling for more shared responsibility among EU member states.

Subsequently, the European Commission announced the launch of Triton, with an estimated start-up cost of €20 million. Unlike Mare Nostrum, however, it will be initially limited in scope and will not patrol international waters or Malta’s search-and-rescue area.

Since its creation in 2004, Frontex has been accused of human-rights violations and insufficient accountability in its operations with EU member states. Despite the adoption of a new fundamental rights strategy in 2011—embracing a fundamental rights officer and a Consultative Forum , which includes civil society, intergovernmental organisations and EU agencies, to better protect human rights—Frontex is still being criticised, with purported deficits including a “genuine complaints mechanism” and independent monitoring, as well as vis-à-vis its liability and responsibility-sharing with member states.

Search and rescue or immigration control ? Even before the Lampedusa tragedy, a Fundamental Rights Agency report attested that rescue operations at the EU’s southern borders were intrinsically linked with immigration control, particularly when it came to the question as to whether migrants could disembark via private as well as government vessels.

Despite the lack of a new approach in the guidelines and official Europe’s continued focus on surveillance and border control, the public debate following Lampedusa was nonetheless promising, as it gave a stronger voice to the migrants’ rights movement across the continent, especially at the EU’s southern borders. The migrants’ rights movement had already been advocating more regular channels for migrants to enter Europe, underscoring the absence of evidence that increased border control and securitisation could actually deter irregular migration.


Some activists have proposed an alternative rescue mechanism. Watch the Med Alarm Phone is a hotline managed by a multilingual team from both sides of the Mediterranean, supporting migrants in situations of distress at sea. To be launched this month, it aims to be available 24/7 for distress calls, which are then transferred to coastguards.

Proposals have also been brought to the EU policy level. Several Spanish members of the Migreurop network have published a joint manifesto, Por una solución europea al drama en las fronteras de Ceuta y Melilla : 4 medidas urgentes y realizables (“For a European Solution to the Tragedy at the Borders of Ceuta and Melilla : four urgent and feasible measures”), in response to the externalisation and securitisation of borders which have failed to prevent tragedies and fatalities over the past 20 years. Endorsed by more than 2,500 people, it was presented during a debate at the European Parliament in September.

The manifesto demands better application of European and Spanish legislation, ensuring family reunification and proper access to visas. Morocco, a transit country for sub-Saharan migrants attempting to reach the EU, should make the criteria of its current regularisation programme more accessible for undocumented migrants. And an inclusive international round table is proposed, recognising the socio-economic north-south divide, aiming for dialogue on the causes of irregular migration and seeking solutions on all of the EU’s borders.

Similarly, the Charter of Lampedusa, a pact developed by grassroots organisations, associations and individuals who met in Lampedusa at the start of this year, calls for a comprehensive overhaul of European migration and asylum policies. It supports freedom of movement and freedom to stay.

And, highlighting the detrimental consequences of EU migration policy in Greece, a group of EU and Greek civil-society organisations have published a set of recommendations to the EU . These would challenge the persistent violations of migrants’ rights, ensure compliance with EU legal standards and promote channels for migrants to work regularly in the union.

The way ahead

The EU must recognise that migration is a reality, that it is not a criminal activity and that all migrants are rights holders. Calling them “illegals” and using other criminalising language legitimises repressive controls at the borders and in our communities. It normalises the use of physical restraint, deprivation of liberty and other unnecessary exercise of force.

Indeed, several key institutions at global and European level have recognised the impact of negative terminology and have adopted the terms “undocumented” and “irregular” migrants. Some leading media outlets are also starting to question the accuracy of the language they use when reporting on migration.

The death toll in the Mediterranean will only decrease if the EU opens more safe and regular routes to Europe, including an increased offer of family reunification and other special visas, as Amnesty International reaffirmed in its latest report on the issue.

Today, we not only commemorate this tragic anniversary but remember the additional 2,500 migrants who have lost their lives since the beginning of this year. We also have to acknowledge that, while the shipwreck of 3 October 2013 triggered new debates and civil-society actions, the commitments by policy-makers have to date led neither to a comprehensive rights-based approach nor to actions sufficient to protect the fundamental rights of migrants at Europe’s borders.


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