Last week Italy brought to an end its year-long search and rescue operation for undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean. Operation Mare Nostrum, which was set up after more than 360 people died in a shipwreck off Lampedusa in October 2013, saved around 150,000 lives. It will be replaced by Operation Triton, overseen by the European Union’s border agency, Frontex. Rather than an active search and rescue effort, Triton will be concerned with border surveillance, its remit limited to waters within thirty kilometres of the Italian coast. Mare Nostrum is said to have cost the Italian state more than €9 million a month; the budget for Triton will be a third of that.
Those are political choices. The week that Triton was announced, the Home Office defended its decision not to contribute to a like-for-like replacement of Mare Nostrum. The new arrangements had been agreed by Europe’s interior ministers, including Theresa May, earlier in the month. Their explanation for the reduced role of Triton was that the expansive reach of its forerunner, operating in an area of 27,000 square kilometres, was a counterproductive ‘pull factor’ in attracting undocumented migrants.
It’s an absurd claim. People who have fled war zones, famine and economic deprivation will keep on trying to reach Europe, however treacherous the journey. By the end of August, the UN estimated that more than six million people had been displaced in Syria and three million more had fled to neighbouring countries. Their experiences are repeated, to differing degrees, along much of Europe’s periphery. It is meaningless to talk of ‘pull’ when the ‘push’ is so strong.
The International Organisation for Migration recently reported that more than 4000 undocumented migrants have died so far this year trying to cross a sea or land border. That figure is already 70 per cent higher than for the whole of 2013. Three-quarters of those deaths were in the Mediterranean.
In not offering an equivalent replacement for Mare Nostrum, the governments of Europe are effectively accepting tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean over the coming years. This not only represents an ethical low point for the continent, but also displays a disregard for the facts.
Africa’s population is set to double between now and 2050. At the same time, climate change may lead to a collapse in crop yields in sub-Saharan Africa of as much as one-third. Recent migration flows from the Middle East and Africa towards Europe mark the beginning of a process that will remake the continent, as ‘resource crunches’ – for water, energy and food – set in around its edges. In Yemen, for example, nearly 50 per cent of the population is under 15; the government is engaged in armed conflict with three insurgencies; the capital, Sana’a, looks set to be the first city in the world to run out of water; and the country’s population is set to double in the next four decades. Europe, meanwhile, faces demographic decline: by the middle of the century the continent’s population will be both older and – unless there is net immigration – smaller.
Operation Triton is not only morally repugnant; it also shows how unprepared Europe is for the inevitable. ‘Fortress Europe’ is not the answer. We can only hope that a greyer continent, darker too, will also be wiser. It could start with an operation in the Mediterranean that places greater importance on the preservation of life than the sanctity of borders.