The 2016 migrant death toll nearly doubled just this past weekend on the Mediterranean. One of the most gripping and iconic images to emerge from this horrific weekend was one of a volunteer cradling a drowned infant (graphic image warning: link), prompting comparisons to the case of Aylan Kurdi, the “boy on the beach” from this fall.
Behind his story lay several hundred others like it. The Wall Street Journal reports:
About 700 people are thought to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa in the past few days, the United Nations’ refugee agency said Sunday, further highlighting the perils of the world’s deadliest migration route.
That figure is “a conservative estimate,” with most of the deaths the result of three large shipwrecks, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Carlotta Sami. Most of the migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa.
On Wednesday, a ship went down with about 100 people thought to have been trapped inside, Ms. Sami said, citing witnesses. The following day, a ship sank with about 550 on board, according to migrants watching from a nearby vessel. On Friday, several dozen bodies were recovered from another ship that sank.[..] Excluding the 700 feared dead on Sunday, 1,000 people have lost their lives this year attempting the crossing, according to the International Organization for Migration.
These are the victims of a series of a series of European political decisions that, as we’ve written during previous disasters, add up to a morally catastrophic outcome. Faced with the choice of tightening border controls and keeping people out, or welcoming migrants with open arms by sending ships or chartered jets to safely bring these poor people to asylum centers in Europe, Brussels has instead blindly groped its way to the worst possible solution: it left the EU’s borders largely open, but did nothing to ensure safe passage to a mass of desperate people willing to do almost anything for a decent life.
Of course, taking all comers is a political non-starter. The migrants that have arrived thus far have proven unpopular enough to serve as a rallying cry for the continent’s many nationalist and nativist parties, many of whom could now easily enter governing coalitions at the next vote.
But as much as a properly liberal open-arms refugee policy, in full accordance with the EU’s post-WWII best ideals, has proven impossible to implement, so too has even a shade of its opposite. European elites got the vapors when Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian President Viktor Orban built fences around his country, diverting migrant flows onto its neighbors. They fumed that his unilateralism was un-European. But when a subset of European countries—Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia, along with EU aspirants Serbia and Montenegro—actively worked together earlier this year to shut down the new migrant corridor that Orban’s actions had created, their cooperation, too, was pilloried. The implicit message was that no amount of deterrence was acceptable.
Many observers spent the winter warning that both the death toll and the migrant influx would increase dramatically once the warm weather came. And yet little was done to seal off the Libya-to-Italy route, through which (it was obvious for to all to see) even more people would be flooding after the Turkey-EU pact was signed. Nor were any large-scale, systemic changes made in the asylum, repatriation, or welfare laws that would have made a difference by deterring people from taking outsize risks.
And of course, lurking behind all of this ultimately is a semi-acknowledged series of foreign policy failures, not limited to only Syria and Libya. Addressing the fallout of the current messes, as well as reorienting thinking about foreign policy in such a way as to prevent similar future catastrophes, would require a total overhaul of the way the the Europeans approach foreign policy. It, too, is a tall order.
But without change, the chaos just to Europe’s south will continue to churn out refugees and migrants, and repatriation will continue to be impossible. So we continue to have the unhappy policy of “if you survive, you can stay.” And sometimes, people—including innocent infants—don’t.