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After Lampedusa Disaster, Europe Debates Immigration

October 11, 2013

As divers continue to search for bodies in the wreckage of a migrant boat that capsized last Thursday (October 3), Europe is forced to take a hard look at a dangerous and ineffective policy on migration, especially as concerns asylum seekers. The boat, carrying an estimated 500 people, mainly from Somalia and Eritrea, caught fire and capsized just off the coast of the small Italian island of Lampedusa. Scenes and figures from the disaster are heart-wrenching: an airport hangar turned mortuary for over 300 bodies, hundreds of coffins brought to the island to meet demand, only 155 survivors (mostly men) out of 500 on the overcrowded ship, and the anger of the tragedy-worn population of Lampedusa who are demanding greater action be taken by the European Union to prevent what is ultimately but the latest in an on-going string of preventable deaths.

Officials have extended symbolic comfort; Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta granted those who died in the shipwreck Italian citizenship. But what of the survivors and the thousands of other asylum-seekers who flee to Mediterranean Europe every year? Since the beginning of this year, Italy alone has seen 30,100 migrants come by boat from North Africa, filling migrant reception centers to many times their capacity. And Italy is certainly not alone. In fact, many of those countries struggling the most in the EU debt crisis (like Italy, Greece, and Spain) are those facing the most maritime immigration. Though this most recent tragedy has caught the attention of media and politicians around the world, the Mediterranean countries have long been calling for reform.

However, as EU administration begins calling for immigration reforms with greater urgency, we must consider what form those changes will take. While the EU has quickly approved a new European Border Surveillance system, Eurosur, many have argued that the purpose of such a system is to stymie the flow of irregular migrants and asylum seekers into Europe. Saving lives is only a secondary concern.

In light of the reality of migration in Italy and the rest of Mediterranean Europe, reforming an inadequate system seems a Sisyphean effort to revise policy that needs a serious overhaul. Expanding capacity in migration centers is certainly needed, but it is delusional to think that it will fix the overall problem, complex as it is. Not only do efforts need to be made to more quickly and inclusively allow entry into the EU for refugees (something mandated by both EU and UN law), but the turmoil forcing thousands to flee their home countries needs to be addressed as well.

We can only hope last week’s tragedy will spur policy makers into a more systemic approach to immigration reform, one whose aim will be a better life for thousands of other migrants instead of leaving them in lives of violence.

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