|Escorted by Italian coast guards, illegal migrants arrive at Messina Port, Italy, on April 18 (AFP)
Illegal immigration is nothing new to Europe. But since the beginning of this year, it has become a humanitarian issue on a scale never before encountered, as a soaring number of undocumented people from the Middle East and Africa seek asylum or a better life in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 1,800 stowaways lost their lives in the Mediterranean on the way to Italy from January to May. The casualty figure is 20 times that of the same period in 2014. The deceased mainly came from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Gambia and Nigeria.
Victims of conflicts
Africa, which remains the most impoverished continent in the world, is a major source of illegal immigration to Europe.
In 2014, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UN Development Program revealed in their reports that although Africa has achieved rapid economic growth since 2002, it still had 414 million people, or about 45 percent of the continent's population, living below the internationally recognized poverty line of less than $1.25 day in 2010.
Poverty provides a breeding ground for social instability and extremism. At the end of 2010, political unrest, triggered by a gloomy economic outlook, widespread unemployment and a multitude of other social problems, swept North African countries including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. At present, these countries are still only halfway there in terms of fully restoring peace and order.
Libya has become a major point of departure for refugees bound for Europe. Libya's borders were strictly guarded during ousted leader Muammar el-Qaddafi's regime, effectively curbing smuggling and illegal migration. Since Qaddafi was toppled in a civil war in 2011, various political forces have entered into a fierce struggle for state power in the country. Capitalizing on political chaos in the North African country, the Islamic State extremist militant group has also gained ground there, constituting a potent threat to regional security.
After the outbreak of the civil war in Libya, a large number of heavily armed militias have expanded their presence to neighboring countries, such as Mali, Niger and Mauritania, fueling terror activities in sub-Saharan Africa.
The latest report released by the UNHCR in June shows that in the past five years, among a total of 15 large-scale military conflicts around the globe, eight occurred in Africa and three in the Middle East. Frequent terror attacks and military conflicts have with crushing inevitability led to a growing number of refugees.
In addition, the four-year civil war in Syria has made the country the largest source of refugees in the world, even topping its closest rival, Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, a total of 3.88 million Syrians had fled abroad.
It is reported that as many as 1 million refugees from Syria and sub-Saharan African countries are waiting to be shipped to Europe from Libya by smugglers and gangs, even though they will have to risk life-threatening hunger and dehydration as well as a high possibility of shipwreck en route to their destinations.
The huge influx of illegal migrants into European countries has also brought with it an unprecedented challenge to the recipient countries' social stability and security. So far, the EU still lacks effective means to properly deal with the situation.
Italy and Greece are the gateway to inland European states for migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Considering that the shortest distance from Tunisia's Mediterranean coast to south Italy's Lampedusa Island is a paltry 100 km, Italy in particular has become a prime choice for those wishing to enter Europe from the south. The increased traffic through Italy also raises smuggling concerns.
In 2013, the Italian Government launched the Operation Mare Nostrum (a reference to the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea) to seek out and rescue migrants who were in distress in their waters. However, the operation lacked an accompanying focus on smugglers and gangs, and as a result, the smuggling problem along Italian borders have only escalated.
Furthermore, EU members in the grip of post-crisis austerity measures failed to reach an agreement to share the burden of the search-and-rescue operation's costs, which ran as high as €9 million ($10.09 million) per month. Italy alone was unable to financially afford the operation and had to suspend it at the end of last year.
Since then, EU border agency Frontex has launched the Triton border patrol mission within 30 nautical miles of the Italian shore, with a monthly budget of €2.5 million ($2.8 million). EU officials said that the mission would focus on border protection instead of search-and-rescue maneuvers for migrant boats.
After several boats carrying migrants to Europe were wrecked in the Mediterranean over the past few months, the EU realized that it had to take action. Ministers for foreign and interior affairs of EU member states held a joint meeting in Luxembourg on April 20.
At the meeting, a 10-point action plan in response to the migrant crisis received the full backing of all participants.
In the plan, EU member states agree to reinforce joint operations in the Mediterranean, namely Triton and Poseidon, by increasing the financial resources and the number of assets available, the total value of which will be approximately three times the currently budgeted €2.5 million a month. The EU will strengthen border patrols and take action to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers. The plan also includes a voluntary pilot project on resettlement, offering a number of places to persons in need of protection. Furthermore, the EU will work together with countries surrounding Libya to gather further intelligence on migration into Europe.
Despite these enhanced efforts, the EU's measures are unlikely to resolve the migration crisis completely, as the root of the problem lies in war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, a fundamental way out for the issue is to promote political dialogue and economic reconstruction in the countries in question. Moreover, EU countries should share the responsibility to resettle migrants who have survived the dangerous journey to Europe from their war-torn or poverty-stricken homelands.
The migration crisis has become an issue of international concern, one that requires a comprehensive approach including development aid, counterterrorism efforts and cultural integration.
The author is deputy director of the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Copyedited by Eric Daly
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org