Events & News


The Mediterranean: A cemetery for EU asylum seekers?



A printable version of this commentary is available here.

“We are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean sea”, so as Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, in the wake of the sinking of a boat carrying 250 asylum seekers just off the coast of his country, on 11 October. More than 30 people died. “I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done”[1].

That was just the latest in a series of tragedies since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, which accentuated this flow of asylum seekers and migrants. Just days before on 3 October, a small fishing boat carrying over 500 refugees sunk due to a fire on board, just before it reached its destination of the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies just 113 km from the coast of Tunisia (nearer than to the Italian mainland or to Sicily). More than 300 of the boat’s passengers died. Malta had been working with Italian authorities to mount rescue operations for survivors.

Countdown to a tragedy: forced migration and creaking boats

Many of the migrants came from Middle East and North Africa, but there were those that came as far from other conflict zones such as Eritrea and Somalia. Some of these migrants have even made the boat journey all the way from Syria, which has been engulfed in a stalemated civil war for two years, although the more common route for Syrian refugees is the land crossing through Greece and Bulgaria from Turkey. Most of them have legitimate asylum seeking claims under international law.

The vessels in which they make these perilous crossings of the Mediterranean are often rickety, overladen boats, arranged for by human smugglers. “We cannot accept that thousands of people die on Europe’s borders,” said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, when he visited Lampedusa[2]. During his visit to Lampedusa, Mr Barroso was booed by the Italian islanders who have been known to be welcoming and hospitable to asylum seekers, contrary to the spirit of Italian and EU law. But all that has been done so far is the setting up of a task force to study the problem, which was the main outcome of a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg last week. The recently concluded European Council summit saw EU leaders divided as before on the issue and much time was spent discussing the US spying scandal instead.

The normal population of the island of Lampedusa is 6,000 – but just this year so far, 30,100 migrants have reached Italy on boats originating from North Africa. The Italian government has said that 73% of these migrants met the legal criteria for asylum. The Italian immigration reception centre on Lampedusa that opened in the early 2000s was designed for 250 people to stay for not more than 48 hours before their asylum applications were processed on the Italian mainland. Reports say that it currently houses more than 2,000 people and provides only basics such as food, clothes and simple medical attention. Due to the inadequate facilities on Lampedusa, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR has urged Italy to keep to the 48 hour maximum of housing the migrants at the Lampedusa reception centre before being transferred to the Italian mainland.

The Dublin II migrant law: in need of fixing?

EU leaders are certainly not oblivious to the fact that the current system is heavily flawed. In fact, they have constantly highlighted the problems faced by their countries when it comes to refugees trying to reach their shores.  The Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta recently acknowledged on September 3 that, with an impending influx of refugees from Syria, the European Union does not have an adequate approach to the refugee problem[3]. Letta could not have been more right, but unfortunately, the tragedy at Lampedusa has only led to the EU’s flawed system making headline news throughout the world.

The EU’s current asylum policy, as encapsulated in the Dublin II regulation, says that “you cannot choose the country in which you wish to apply for asylum”.[4] Asylum seekers can only apply for refugee status in one member state, which usually is the first member state they arrive. It was intended to prevent the abuse of the system through “asylum shopping” on the part of the refugee, as well as to prevent EU member states from sending refugees from one country to another within the EU, with the result that legitimate asylum applications are never heard. This would constitute a human rights violation under the Geneva Convention which offers international protection to asylum seekers. Mass “push-backs” of asylum seekers – also known as “non-refoulement” – is banned in principle in the EU. Further to this, critics of the current system have constantly noted that there is a lack of legal channels available for both migrants and refugees to reach Europe. For many hopefuls seeking stable and secure lives in the EU, crossing the sea with the help of people smugglers is the only viable option for them.

Regardless of its flaws, the attractiveness of freedom of movement within Europe has continued to fuel further attempts at migration. Indeed, if the asylum seeker does get accepted by Italy, he or she can move around the EU freely under EU citizenship rules, as opposed to going another country in the region as, say, Turkey.  While the Dublin II regulation in principle sounds like a good approach it does place excessive pressure on EU border states such as Italy to take on a large share of the burden in times of mass migration. A poignant reminder of such a sorry state of affairs is illustrated in Italy’s request for EU and UN funds and resources to deal with the tragedy, and at the same time, having to beef up its border patrols in order to deal adequately with the impending influx of boats with asylum seekers. Furthermore, if Italy were to process future asylum seekers entering through the Mediterranean, the overcrowded centre on Lampedusa would need more funding from the EU in order to expand it from its current capacity of 250 to 16,000.

Indeed, the inadequate facilities and the flaws of Dublin II give a sense of the problem facing the EU now – that is, the EU’s border states bear the brunt of this flood of immigration and they are clearly ill equipped to handle it. As the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström put it: “there are six or seven countries who take all the responsibility and we are 28 in this union”[5]. The majority of EU member states appeared unwilling to help in bearing the burden inviting criticisms of a lack of solidarity in dealing with the problem.

However, it seems that there is little appetite for all EU member states to reach an agreement on revising Dublin II. It is more likely that they will instead seek to make improvements to Frontex, the EU order-security co-ordination system, which supplies guards, surveillance aircraft and patrol ships to beef up national forces. But at less than €100m a year, Frontex’s budget is paltry and clearly lacks the resources necessary to effectively implement a Mediterranean-wide search-and-rescue system that the European Commission wants it to. As mentioned previously, no agreement was reached on sharing Europe’s migration burden at the recent European Council summit, and EU leaders are not willing to commit further resources until the Euurosur surveillance system is operational[6]. Further discussions about immigration policy will only take place in December at another meeting of EU leaders. Upon hitting the wall on these budgetary issues, the debate in the EU on immigration then turns to addressing the root cause of these mass migrations – civil wars, political unrest – not that the prospects of ending the Syrian civil war are any less illusive that two years ago.

A problem faced by other EU states and elsewhere around the world

Italy is not the only EU border state that is coming under pressure by the wave of immigrants – even Bulgaria is currently also under strain from Syrian refugees. This year so far, 6,400 immigrants have crossed the Bulgarian border illegally, most of them fleeing Syria through Turkey. This is a much smaller number than what the island of Lampedusa faces. Nevertheless, Bulgaria has never before had to deal with such a flood of refugees, and is thus ill prepared. The European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva, who is also the Bulgarian commissioner, said she was afraid that Bulgarian society could turn hostile to Syrian immigrants. The Bulgarian interior minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said in Luxembourg that his country would be getting direct financial assistance from the EU to cope with the influx of refugees.

Instances elsewhere around the world only illustrate that the pains and dangers of forced migration is not just an EU problem but a real global challenge. Being a developed nation that is attractive  to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka, Australia has encountered numerous attempts by these migrants to enter Australia by boat, and like Europe, the rising death toll has sparked an outcry in that country over the flaws in their immigration systems and the often inhumane treatment of these migrants. In Southeast Asia, Rohingya refugees fleeing sectarian conflict in Myanmar have attempted to reach the shores of more affluent nations such as Thailand and Malaysia – countries that have long been reluctant or ill-equipped to take in these migrants – only to be mistreated or rejected by the authorities in these countries.


What are the lessons of the Lampedusa tragedy for the EU and the rest of the world? The key for the EU now would be to find a way to overcome the deadlock and reform the current system of handling asylum seekers.  Migrants fleeing their countries due to persecution or poverty should be humanely treated under a non-discriminatory system, and a cohesive policy where burden of immigration falls on the EU as a group rather than on individual member states will go a long way in addressing the needs of migrants. Beyond that, the EU would have to recognise that forced migration is a global challenge, and that there is a need to work broadly with bordering states as well as the origin states of asylum seekers, rather than continue to erect walls that could prove deadly to the thousands of asylum seekers headed for Europe. This is a lesson that other states, including Australia and those in ASEAN, would have to take seriously lest they face more human tragedies in future.