Refugee Crisis

The devil and the deep blue sea

A boat with 200 migrants, off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy in January 2014. Source: EPA
A boat with 200 migrants, off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy in January 2014.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Europe does not develop a common response to refugee seekers, thousands more will drown in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

  • Facts


    • Some 950 people aiming for Italy drowned when their boat capsized on Saturday night.
    • Thousands of people try to reach Europe via Libya every year.
    • International law requires all ships to rescue anyone in peril at sea.
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The deaths of nearly 1,000 people over the weekend in the warm blue waters of the Mediterranean, the ancient trading route that links Europe to the Middle East and to Africa, have revived calls to reform Europe’s refugee policy.

On Saturday night, as many as 950 men, women and children died when their boat, which set off from the lawless zone that used to be called Libya, capsized. According to one of only 28 survivors, up to 300 people were locked in the boat’s storage room.

Some 400 people died in a similar way last week.

Each week, thousands of people are cramming into rickety, unsafe boats off the coast of Libya and setting sail to seek refuge in Europe. Most of them are heading for Italy, which is trying desperately to deal with the tide of people heading its way.

The sheer magnitude of Saturday’s tragedy left European leaders scrambling on Monday for a response.  Criticism has grown that the European Union, which scrapped a more comprehensive Mediterranean rescue operation last October for fear of encouraging illegal immigration, is doing too little to prevent the deaths.

Calls for concerted action are coming despite the rise of right-wing political parties in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere, which oppose immigration and more asylum seekers and are pressuring governments to halt the tide of immigrants.

A poll by German television news channel NTV on Monday showed that 81 percent of Germans opposed further asylum seekers, with only 19 percent in favor.

“Europe has to decide if it wants to serve as a negative example when it comes to humanity and human rights, or if it wants to go back to its roots, to its original values, and they were values of humanity and human rights,” Karl Kopp, a spokesman for German refugee organization, ProAsyl, told Handelsblatt Global Editon. “The creation of the Europe Union was created based on these ideals after the barbarism of Nazism and the war.”

“There are more and more people in Europe who say: Enough is enough. There are so many people who are disgusted and shocked by this policy.  They do not want these deaths in their name,” Mr. Kopp said.

The sheer scale of recent tragedies are prompting politicians into action.

After the sinking on Saturday, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, announced that the bloc’s foreign ministers and interior ministers would discuss the issue at their regularly scheduled meeting in Luxembourg today.

In the face of E.U. inaction, the problem is escalating.

The International Organization for Migration, which has offices in Berlin and Geneva estimates that 1,500 people have drowned in waters between Libya and Italy since the start of 2015, compared to 96 during the first four months of 2014.

“We mustn't leave the migrants at the mercy of criminals who traffic human beings.”

Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister

William Lacy Swing, the director general of the migrants organization argued that the problem can only be solved by a coordinated international response.

“All of us, especially the E.U. and the world’s powers, can no longer sit on the sidelines watching while this tragedy unfolds in slow motion,” he said in a statement.

The route from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is a treacherous one.

Families pool their life savings to pay migration agents, who cram hundreds of people onto overcrowded overland trucks that travel for days through the desert to reach north Africa and wait for the chance to make a perilous sea journey to Europe.

Libya was always a popular stopping off point. But since Western forces helped rebels depose Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the country has become a failed state with warring factions and competing governments, unable to police its borders or control the vast numbers moving through it in the search for a better life.

The number of migrants moving through Libya has surged, and now, the would-be asylum seekers come not just from sub-Saharan Africa, but from Syria, where civil war has created one of the world’s worst refugee crises. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 9 million Syrians have fled since March 2011, and some 150,000 have sought asylum in the European Union.

But the European Council on Refugees and Exiles points out that the European Union has made it incredibly hard for people from “refugee producing areas” to enter the E.U. Visa requirements are getting stricter and airplanes are heavily sanctioned for carrying undocumented passengers.

Individuals fleeing persecution have no more ability to legally enter the E.U. than others. People desperate to leave their countries are taking life-threatening risks. Frontex, the E.U. border agency, estimates there were 278,000 irregular border crossings last year – twice as many as in 2011.

So far the European Union’s response has been to cut down on search and rescue operations at the precise moment they are most needed. Many E.U. governments, most notably Great Britain, said they believed scaling back search and rescue would deter migrants from making the dangerous journey.

The Italian interior minister in October 2014 said that Italy was ending its own expensive search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum and replacing it by a new Europe-wide operation, called Triton, which is coordinated by Frontex.

Triton has much fewer resources and is more limited in scale.

Mare Nostrum operated in international waters while Triton’s remit is only to control waters 30 miles from the Italian coast. Frontex also does not own planes or ships, so it relies on contributions from member states.


Dying at Sea-01 (3)


This decision is now looking like a huge mistake.

“It was an illusion to think that cutting off Mare Nostrum would prevent people from attempting this dangerous voyage,” said the German government’s representative for migration, refugees and integration, Aydan Özoguz.

Italy wants more support from Europe, and lays the blame for the deaths at the door of other E.U. member states. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi called an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday evening and asked for more help from Rome’s partners.

“We mustn’t leave the migrants at the mercy of criminals who traffic human beings,” Mr. Renzi told a news conference. “We are asking not to be left alone.”

In the Vatican City, Pope Francis, speaking from St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, called the refugees “men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war.”

Last week, the Italian coastguard said that it had rescued nearly 10,000 migrants over just four days. According to official estimates, at least 31,500 migrants have entered Italy and Greece since the start of the year.

Anti-immigrant politicians, such as Matteo Salvini, leader of the nationalist Lega Nord have suggested setting up naval blockades at sea: an idea Mr. Renzi has rejected.

At the moment, E.U. asylum law requires people seeking asylum to claim it at the first E.U. country they reach. This means countries with external borders such as Italy end up dealing with a disproportionately large number of asylum seekers. Other asylum seekers try to bypass the rules, staying unregistered and unknown until they reach a country they want to settle in.

At the moment five E.U. countries, including Germany, have taken in around three quarters of asylum seekers.

German interior minister, Thomas de Mazière, added his support to a Europe-wide response to the crisis. “No country can solve the refugee problem alone,” he said and added that he believed the fact that 10 member states took no asylum seekers at all was “completely unacceptable.” He also called for common standards for the recognition, accommodation and deportation of asylum seekers; something that the European Commission is trying to draw up in its European Agenda on Migration that is due to be published in May.

However, refugee organization ProAsyl criticized Mr. de Mazière for blocking a Europe-wide rescue operation, sharing the British view that it would act as an incentive.

Meanwhile, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said it was essential to stabilize countries like Libya to prevent more boat tragedies. “Only stable conditions there will keep Libya from being used by migrant smugglers and smuggler organizations,” he said.

The issue is also affecting shipping. International maritime law and common ethical codes oblige captains of ship to offer assistance to anyone in distress at sea. The International Chamber of Shipping estimates that in 2014, 800 commercial ships rescued around 40,000 migrants at sea worldwide, and there has now been some debate over whether shipping companies should be compensated for losses they incur in carrying out these rescues.


Siobhán Dowling and Meera Selva are editors at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Till Hoppe, politics correspondent in Berlin, and Katharina Kort, Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Milan, contributed to this report. To contact the authors: and

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