Our Sea


The Italian Harbourmaster Corps (Coast Guard) in Rome rescues migrants bound to the coasts of Italy. © Francesco Malavolta 2014

By Eugenio Ambrosi
IOM Regional Director, RO Brussels

First published in New Europe | 18 Feb 2015 

Europe seems to have forgotten that it was only 70 years ago that Europeans were uprooted and seeking shelter from war and poverty. Then in the blink of an eye, Europe went from a continent of emigration to one of destination and yet our welcome leaves much to be desired.  We have drawn up the bridge and entered into “crisis” mode as if Europe were under siege by migrants.

Let’s put this in perspective.  The European Union is a political and economic “continent” of 500 million people with vast resources.  Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are far smaller but are dealing with millions of migrants and displaced people. While there are undoubtedly more pressures on some southern EU states, even these increased flows are manageable for Europe as a whole.

By the year 2050, European Union member states will require tens of millions of labour migrants. Getting to that point will mean a rethink of our approach towards how we manage our labour market programmes and how migration could contribute to it. This is why it is time for a serious refocus of our approach towards cooperation with countries of origin and transit, the “third countries” from where the mixed flows of migrants are leaving or passing through.

The current European approach tends to view migration as a “problem” shipped from third counties and deposited on the shores of Europe.

“Cooperation” loses its meaning when it takes the lopsided form of Europe asking third countries to help solve what it perceives as its unique problem. Let’s not forget that the number of people moving between developing countries – “South to South” migration – is essentially equal to that of migration from South to North.  Countries in Africa, for example, face their own challenges in managing migration from other African countries and the Arabian Peninsula.

Europe must acknowledge and appreciate that sending countries are dealing with migration concerns and pressures of their own, often much greater than those Europe itself faces. In Somalia, for example, what can be done to support the authorities dealing with the 63,000 Somalis and over 160,000 Ethiopians who have been forcibly returned from various countries?  In northern Nigeria, there are hundreds of thousands of displaced people; their situation and fate must be a concern for the international community as a whole.

There is a better way to frame cooperation with third countries: one based on mutual recognition of shared, interlinked challenges and responsibilities.

Just as we need more solidarity among countries in Europe, we need to improve solidarity with non-European countries experiencing much greater crises in managing migration and displacement. This, in our view, will lead to a more balanced, effective and trustworthy relationship. What’s more, helping third countries to manage their own migration will contribute to reducing pressures on the European Union by improving governance of migration globally, rather than just at our borders.

Finally, we need greater international cooperation in our efforts to counter people smuggling and trafficking.

Smugglers – capitalizing on Europe’s “under siege” mentality which has predictably forced more people to take desperate measures and dangerous routes – have stepped in to facilitate audacious and deadly sea crossings to meet the demand from migrants and asylum seekers, which remains high given the extraordinarily desperate outlook in neighboring countries and regions and the need for better, regular ways to reach Europe.

In January, cargo ships were sent by smugglers on a crash course with the coast of Italy, risking the lives of the thousands on board.  On Monday (9/2), 29 migrants died from hypothermia after being rescued by the Italian Coast Guard, and on Wednesday (11/2) tragedy repeated itself on a massive scale in a related incident where over 300 missing migrants from Africa are feared drowned after their rubber dinghies – courtesy of smugglers who forced them to board – capsized in rough winter seas.  Over 3,800 migrants have been rescued since Friday (13/2).

Shutting down this deadly cycle means pulling the rug out from under the smugglers’ feet by getting accurate information to would be migrants and those in transit about the false wares of smugglers. It means undermining their business through the adequate provision of improved safe, legal ways to get to Europe. It means intensified, focused multinational cooperation and law enforcement against these criminal organizations.

Whereas we all face a crisis generated by the unconscionable numbers of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, the main migration challenge is not the number of arrivals. Rather, this is a crisis of memory and perspective, of balance and political will that if corrected will allow us to better see the contours of how migration can be managed more effectively in Europe and beyond.

A crisis footing is not conducive to constructive, long-term policy improvements and it is certainly not saving lives.  We need to move from defensive quick fixes to a united,politically courageous vision grounded in the overwhelming evidence that migration, managed in the right way, benefits all of us.

The Mediterranean sea holds eminence as a body that enabled the maritime migration of civilization and progress, the advancement of culture, science and legal systems across the continents it unites. Throughout recorded history, great civilizations have afforded recognition and respect to the Mediterranean’s central role in the synthesis of differences and as a facilitator of development.

The Romans renamed it “Our Sea”, Mare Nostrum.