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Med Migration Tragedy Points to Long-Term Challenges

The terrible loss of life in the latest Mediterranean migration disasters may finally spur European Union leaders to concerted action writes Ian Lessor and Astrid Ziebarth. If so, it will be a very tardy response to the worst human security crisis affecting Europe since World War II.

EU ministers should naturally focus on steps to mitigate the immediate risks to life and the safety of thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and conflict, from South Asia to sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. But the really tough challenges go well beyond maritime search and rescue and border control, and illustrate the rapidly changing stakes for Europe — and the United States — in Mediterranean security and development.

Several realities need to be recognized. First, this challenge will be with us for years to come. The drivers of Mediterranean migration are unlikely to wane any time soon as the economic pull is structural. The prosperity gap between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean represents an economic divide equalled only on the Korean peninsula. The human security push is also a durable one.

There is no obvious near-term end to the chaos and conflict affecting Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Sahel, and other parts of the Mediterranean Basin. In many settings — Libya is a key example — there is simply no competent authority to serve as a partner in managing migration pressures. Turkey, a country bearing the burden of massive refugee flows from Syria and Iraq, and a departure point for migrants headed to Europe from Afghanistan and elsewhere, is a key exception. Better cooperation with Ankara should be at the top of Europe’s migration policy agenda.

Second, it is not just about border control. The long-term nature of the problem needs to be addressed through a more comprehensive European approach to migration policy. This will not be easy given the rise of xenophobic politics and public unease with the growing numbers of asylum seekers in many European societies. Better legal paths need to be created for asylum seekers to reach the EU, whether through humanitarian visas or some form of processing abroad. At the same time, the responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers needs to be more equally shared among European member states.

Burden sharing will be critical to any type of resettlement program the EU develops to get recognized refugees out of destitute camps. For those who do not have a rightful asylum claim, faster processes need to be put in place for return. Without a proper strategy to support growth, jobs, and security in the countries of origin, and increased opportunities for legal work in the EU, people will still risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean. The migration crisis in the Mediterranean offers another critical incentive for a sweeping reassessment of policies toward Europe’s southern neighbourhood. But even the best designed strategy to spur development and stability across the Mediterranean is unlikely to change the basic migration equation anytime soon, especially as migration pressures emanate from far beyond the Mediterranean littoral itself.

Finally, the United States is a significant stakeholder in the migration and security equation in the Mediterranean. In the coming years, it is very likely that Washington will come to see U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa more and more through the lens of European stakes, including the refugee challenge. Just as southern Europe is pressing the EU to do more to address the migration and human security challenge, NATO is also under pressure to develop a strategy for crisis management in the Mediterranean. This will engage the United States too.

Contributions to maritime search and rescue on Europe’s southern periphery will be another measure of the United States’ commitment to European security, alongside concerted efforts to go after the human traffickers operating from Turkey and North Africa. The naval and coast guard dimension may not be the key to the longer term management of the migration challenge, but it will be integral to addressing the immediate human security crisis. Transatlantic partners already have many assets that can be brought to bear, if there is the political will to do so.

Ian lessors is executive director of the German Marshall Fund ’ Transatlantic Center in Brussels, and Senior Director for Foreign and Security Policy at GMF. Astrid Ziebarth is a Migration Fellow in GMF’s Berlin office.

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