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A shipwrecked European summer

For many European tourists lounging in the sun on the beaches of Greece, Italy, Malta or Cyprus this month, it just hasn’t been the same as previous summer holidays. The reality and plight of desperate migrants crossing the Mediterranean has now come very close to home: literally.



In popular destinations like the Greek island of Kos, bikini-clad holidaymakers are seen casually contemplating rescuers dragging men, women and small children to safety out of dangerously small rubber boats.

Ahead of an all-important European Union-African Union (EU-AU) conference in Malta later this year, crucial decisions will have to be made. Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations and non-governmental bodies are increasingly coming on board to help the thousands of Syrians, Eritreans, Afghans, Sudanese and others who are traversing the Mediterranean at their peril.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 100 000 refugees have arrived in Greece by sea this year, out of an estimated 200 000 arrivals in southern Europe. Over 1 000 people are now arriving in Greece every day, says the organisation. At least 1 900 migrants are reported to have died during the perilous journey.

In the past three months, the humanitarian organisation Medecins sans Frontières (MSF) finally managed to mobilise three ships to carry migrants to safety. The online account of the work done by MSF on these rescue vessels reads like a diary from World War II: Monday 27 July, Dignity I rescues 312 people, nationalities include Moroccan, Sudanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Eritrean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani. Monday 13 July: My Phoenix rescues 414 people, including 21 women and 32 children. Nationalities include: Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Libyan, Moroccan, and Palestinian. And so on.

Migrants waiting to board a cruise ship in Lampedusa, Italy. Image: Francesco Malavolta, AP

Migrants waiting to board a cruise ship in Lampedusa, Italy. Image: Francesco Malavolta, AP

MSF says it is aware that by participating in these rescue missions, it is wading into a ‘very contentious political debate in Europe’. However, it has no option but to help while people are dying at sea. Will rescuing people encourage more refugees to seek a better life in Europe? What are the alternatives? As the Greek minister for Coordinating Government Operations, Alekos Flambouraris is quoted as saying: ‘All these people, parties, organisations and mass media – they have to tell us what they propose; sinking [boats] and drowning women and children? Push them away so that they will be drowned by others?’ As if Greece doesn’t have enough problems.

A key feature of the debate raging in Europe and upon which future decisions will be made, is whether the migrants now arriving en masse are economic migrants – people looking for a better life – or genuine refugees who cannot return to their countries due to war and repression.

According to a report on 10 July published by the UNHCR, up to 60% of the migrants now arriving in southern Europe are from Syria, a country at war. Others are mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea – all of which are synonymous with conflict. Though not very often in the news, Eritrea is a harshly repressive state and many of the young Eritreans fleeing the country are escaping lifelong obligatory military service. Around 4.5 million Syrians are said to have fled their country, with more than a million currently housed in tiny Lebanon.

From this point of view, and recalling how previous generations of war refugees were given a new lease on life in far-flung places like Australia, South Africa, Canada or the United States, it is not surprising that suggestions of relocating today’s refugees are not dismissed outright by experts in the field.

Migrants arriving in Greece in April, 2015. Image: Loukas Mastis, EPA

Migrants arriving in Greece in April, 2015. Image: Loukas Mastis, EPA

A proposal by American businessman Jason Buzi that the world should look for ‘a new country’ for the 60 million or so refugees around the globe is a surprisingly simplistic idea. Migration expert Alexander Betts from the Oxford University Refugees Study Centre says, unfortunately, past experiences of relocation of large populations to create new states, in Liberia and Israel, were very problematic.

The original inhabitants inevitably resent the influx of foreigners on their land and it creates huge animosity. Robin Cohen, former director of the International Migration Institute, also at Oxford, however, thinks ‘we should give Refugia a try’. He says there are examples of new states that emerged from UN-mandates, like pre-independence Namibia. Though the notion has some problems, Buzi’s plan is ‘creatively provocative,’ he says.

What the real motivation could be of migrants trying to get to Europe, particularly the United Kingdom (UK), is prone to many rumours and much hearsay. A 60-page investigation by the French Catholic organisation Secours Catholique (Caritas France) in the French city of Calais reveals a multitude of views.


Many migrants set out on their journey not knowing whether they will arrive in Italy, France or even ever get to Britain. Several thousand migrants desperate to get into the UK are stranded in Calais. After years of running battles with the French police, authorities finally this year agreed to re-establish a makeshift camp for the migrants outside the city. Here they are given food and basic services by organisations like Caritas.

Rescuers help children to disembark in April 2015. Imagae: AP Photo, Alessandra Tarantino.

Rescuers help children to disembark in April 2015. Imagae: AP Photo, Alessandra Tarantino.

So far, all the solutions the EU has come up with have been contested. Only a handful of European countries are, for example, willing to accept their quota migrants in order to help Italy and Greece to cope. According to the German external service Deutsche Welle, €2.5 billion have now been set aside to help Greece and Italy to deal with the migration crisis. This is a huge sum for the cash-strapped EU to dish out. It is unclear, however, exactly where this money will go and how it will be spent.

The EU already has a raft of initiatives and funds to support migration. It also has a long list of projects with the AU to try to deal with human trafficking and the root causes of the problems in developing countries. This includes the so-called Rabat process, which deals with migration from West Africa through Morocco, and the Khartoum process, which deals with the eastern route, through Sudan and Libya.

Several action plans have also been established, like the ‘migration and mobility dialogue’ it has with the AU. According to EU documents, millions of euros are spent on these processes. The Rabat process, for example, is costing €26 million ‘to support the free movement of persons and migration in West Africa’. The Khartoum process is costing €17.5 million.

On its part, the AU says it is actively trying to root out the illegal trafficking and is trying to find a solution to the political and security crisis in Libya – not an easy task, given the complexity of the situation. The planned meeting in Malta, in November, which was announced by the AU at its summit in Johannesburg in June, is intended to galvanise new resolve by world leaders to deal with the crisis. The AU has committed itself to finalise a joint African position on migration before the Malta event. Meanwhile, Europeans returning from vacation next month will still have to cope with this increasingly complex crisis, which is not likely to go away soon.

This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies and is republished here with their permission.