EU's response to migrant crisis all too familiar: Margaret Evans

The current migrant crisis in Europe is worse than what happened in the 1990s and 2000s. But decades later, it doesn't seem like Fortress Europe is any better equipped to deal with the problem, writes Margaret Evans.

Scale of current situation, fed by fallout of Arab Spring, far greater than in 1990s or 2000s

Mulugeta Sium from Eritrea is one of thousands of African refugees who have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent years in the hopes of gaining entry to Europe. (Richard Devey/CBC)

About 15 years ago, I met a young man named Innocent on the tip of northern Africa. He was from Ghana and after four years of hard toil, he'd finally made it overland to the Spanish city of Melilla, a former penal colony and now a fortified enclave on Morocco's Mediterranean coast.

"Is it Europe?" he kept asking me, as if trying to talk himself into the truth of it.

"I feel Melilla is Europe. Is it Europe?"

And indeed it was, in a manner of speaking. He still had to travel from the enclave across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar to continental Europe, but getting inside Melilla's city walls meant Innocent could make an asylum claim that would oblige Spanish authorities to offer him some fundamental rights.

Needless to say, those Spanish authorities were already doing everything they could to make sure other Innocents didn't breach Melilla's walls, the outermost edge of Fortress Europe.

Those who couldn't get into Melilla or its sister enclave, Ceuta, would take their chances on smugglers and rickety boats.

So perilous was the journey and so steady the stream of people willing to risk it that Médecins Sans Frontières used to station people along Spain's southern beaches to assist refugees if they made it ashore.

"They are horrified because many of them have never seen the sea in their life," one of the doctors told me at the time.

Sound familiar? 

History repeats itself

I've written about Innocent before, but his story bears repeating because it is repeating – again and again – in the waters east of Morocco where Libyan traffickers, not Moroccan, now rule the seas and are operating the death traps used to ferry migrants to Europe for huge sums of money.

The scale of the crisis, of course, is now far greater than it was back in the 1990s or 2000s, fed by unrest in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. But the reality and persistence of that desperate flight is as strong as it ever was.

And it makes it difficult to take EU leaders at their word when they talk about the moral imperative to do something now, after nearly 2,000 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean this year alone.

It is, after all, a problem that's been allowed to fester and grow for nearly two decades.

This past week, the European Commission, which acts as a kind of executive body to the 28-nation European Union, published a series of measures it suggests might begin to tackle some of the admittedly hard issues surrounding people-smuggling.

One of its central proposals asks EU member states to take in 20,000 refugees identified by the UNHCR over two years with a quota system that would share refugees across the bloc depending on economic indicators.

The commission also wants an emergency mechanism to redistribute refugees in the case of a "mass influx" into Europe so that the burden doesn't fall entirely on front-line nations such as Italy, Greece and Malta.

Spreading responsibility 

The plan has won praise from aid agencies and advocacy groups for at least trying to increase the number of legal and safe avenues for asylum seekers into the European Union, even if the proposals seek to keep the drawbridge of Fortress Europe up at the same time.

"What we need to see is, in general, a rise in the number of resettlement places Europe-wide. Frankly, it's of course very good if that gets spread around," says Gauri Van Gulik of Amnesty International.

Nearly 2,000 migrants have died this year alone trying to get across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. This is shot of a cemetery on Lampedusa filled with the graves of dead migrants. (Richard Devey/CBC )

But two years ago, the Commission made a similar proposal to EU member states after another tragedy in the Mediterranean. Then, in October 2013 a boat carrying up to 500 people from Eritrea and Somalia sank off the coast of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

There I met another young man named Mulugeta Sium from Eritrea, who had survived the shipwreck by swimming for four hours. Like Innocent all those years ago in Melilla, Sium had taken four years to reach a small piece of European soil and what he believed to be the first step into his future.

The European Commission President at the time said Europe would finally act. It didn't. And there is no guarantee it will this time, either.

'There are going to be migrants'

The Commission's plan will have to pass the test of an EU Summit in June and win a qualified majority vote. Three EU member states already have opt-outs on issues of asylum and home affairs: Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Two numbered coffins are loaded onto a ship docked at Lampedusa. The International Organization for Migration warned last month that the migrant death toll on the Mediterranean this year could top 30,000. (Reuters)

But it is a more formal attempt at a cohesive European migration policy and that in itself is an accomplishment, says Amnesty's Van Gulik.

"There are going to be migrants. So how we manage this will be a problem until the end of time. We're not going to solve this by bombing boats, we're going to ultimately need to have a set-up for those people who need protection in Europe."

As things stand now in Europe, it is a jigsaw puzzle in which a migrant might be granted asylum in one EU member state and deported for being an economic migrant in another. 

Until that changes and European Union member states are able, if not to agree, then at least to compromise on some common principles, then no, Innocent — it's still not Europe yet.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.