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Dublin: 4 °C Wednesday 26 November, 2014

Opinion: An EU coastguard for the Mediterranean could save lives and national budgets

There is a tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean – and it’s not just the responsibility of southern European states.

Niall McGlynn

IN THE FIRST four months of 2014, 25,000 people, mostly migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and Syria arrived in Italy. Most crossed from Libya, using rickety and unseaworthy vessels in choppy waters. These vessels are usually overcrowded and extremely dangerous. They are carrying men, women and children, all of whom are scared, cold, tired and who have paid everything they have to people-smugglers to make the crossing.

Accidents and sinkings are not uncommon, like the tragic disaster last year in which over 350 people drowned when a boat capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, an Italian island which is within striking distance of Libya. It is a popular destination as it is close to Libya and is EU territory.

The growing number of migrants making this perilous journey is a tragedy playing out in slow motion. As the number of vessels making the journey grows, and as more and more unseaworthy boats are used, the number of accidents is going to increase. Each boat can carry hundreds of people, so even one shipwreck is a major disaster. If multiple boats get into difficulty, there is no way the overstretched Italian coastguard can reach them all. This is a recipe for mass casualties. Many of the passengers on these migrant boats do not even have lifejackets, and many are children. A single capsize could be a death sentence for everyone on a boat. Since 1988 it is estimated that nearly 20,000 people have died trying to make the Mediterranean crossing.

An EU coastguard for the Mediterranean

In this situation the EU has a strong and positive role to play. The creation of an EU coastguard for the Mediterranean, in a similar vein to Frontex, the Union’s joint border police force, could help to improve the situation. A multinational force, jointly funded by all EU member states and working in cooperation with national coastguards and navies, in particular those of Italy, Malta, Cyprus and Greece could save many more lives, and also help to alleviate the pressure on already overcrowded asylum centres in southern Europe.

This European coastguard, with a larger budget than individual national coastguards, could be focused on particular hotspots, like the sea route from Libya to Italy and Malta. With a sufficiently large budget allowance from Brussels, it could use not only conventional coastguard ships and helicopters, but also new technologies like drones to help find, identify and, if necessary, save migrants at sea.

An EU coastguard would be a worthwhile investment for all EU member states. Taking care of all those seeking asylum in the EU is a job for all its members. Surely, in a transnational organisation such as the EU, it should be the duty of all members to participate in protecting the lives of those who are seeking asylum in any part of its territory? The tragic deaths of migrants at sea are a tragedy for all of Europe, not just the countries in whose waters they occur. It is in the interests of the entire EU to make its southern sea border secure and safe.

Bringing people-traffickers to justice

Another benefit of a unified European coastguard would be its capacity to start bringing to justice the people-traffickers responsible for sending overladen and unseaworthy boats out into the Mediterranean. Many migrants to Europe from the North African coast pay as much as €2,500 to make the crossing. For the migrants, the sea journey is incredibly perilous, but for the traffickers it is a lucrative business. Until the EU can start making a dent in their business through law enforcement and prosecution, they will continue to send vulnerable migrants by the boatload across the sea.

A joint EU coastguard should be part of a wider, integrated effort to manage the flow of migrants into the EU. The centralising of migrant processing, through a single Europe wide database and an agreement that each member state will contribute a certain portion of their existing EU budget contributions to the new coastguard are two very practical and concrete steps that could be taken immediately. Many migrants are only passing through Mediterranean countries on their way to more northerly ones, making this a Europe-wide problem. Every country has an interest in improving the mechanisms by which Europe deals with incoming migrants.

In a recession, with constrained budgets across Europe, a joint coastguard and migrant processing system are worthwhile investments. Both lives and money could be saved through a comprehensive and multinational response to the tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean. Leaving it as a problem just for Italy and the other southern member states will see more lives lost needlessly, and more uncontrolled and unpredictable movement of migrants through the Mediterranean and southern EU, affecting every European and leading to even more strain on already stretched national economies. Better to share the burden of guarding Europe’s coast now than leave it until it becomes unmanageable for everyone.

Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/ and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.

Column: What’s more important – borders or people?

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