The deaths of more than 350 migrants in the 2013 sinking of an overloaded smuggling vessel off the Italian island of Lampedusa shocked the world and reignited debate over the European Union’s response to the increasing numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean Sea. At first, frontline EU Member States moved swiftly to set up search-and-rescue operations, adopting an approach in keeping with international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, which require rescue of “persons in distress” in states’ territorial waters regardless of their legal status.
This response proved short-lived. The European Union changed its approach at the height of the 2015-16 migration crisis, when approximately 1.4 million asylum seekers and migrants reached Europe via the sea. Shifting from a decentralized system of national rescue operations, the bloc instead concentrated on border management via Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and prioritized erecting obstacles to reaching its borders, increasing surveillance, and criminalizing search-and-rescue operations by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This move towards securitization made the sea passage more dangerous and difficult but did not reduce migrant deaths. Instead, years after the crisis, the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR) has been responsible for more migrant deaths than any other waterway in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
*The views of the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Africa Speaks 4 Africa or its editorial team.