A silent crisis on the Mediterranean


A silent crisis on the Mediterranean

A silent crisis on the Mediterranean
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For thousands of years, the Mediterranean Sea has been synonymous with human mobility and progress. But now its illustrious history is being tainted by the silent human tragedy that is unfolding there.
The sharp increase in attempts by desperate migrants to cross the treacherous waters between Africa and Europe in recent years has resulted in the loss of countless lives, with the true number undoubtedly far higher than the already alarming official statistics record.
Indeed, while images of overcrowded boats and capsized vessels do occasionally make the front pages of newspapers, sparking important conversations on both sides of the Mediterranean, sooner or later our attention drifts elsewhere until the bodies again begin to wash ashore, reminding us once again of the unspoken toll of soaring migrant disappearances that transcend any official sources of data, and testament to a failing system and our collective responsibility for the rising human cost of irregular migration.
The first few months of this year were the deadliest for six years for those desperate souls seeking passage to Europe. Yet the loss of those who continue to perish beneath the waves, including about 28,000 who are presumed to have died since 2014 but remain unaccounted for, has become normalized.
This distressing truth is the byproduct of a catastrophic convergence of factors. European nations continue to adopt policies of distancing and minimization, neglecting desperate migrants in favor of perceived self-interest.
Meanwhile, some North African countries, overwhelmed by their roles in migration, engage in absence of governance on the issue, or even exploit the power of migratory waves as leverage to coax political and financial gains from Europe.
The wider international community consistently fails to mobilize and address the root causes of the issues that result, for example, in thousands of sub-Saharan Africans risking their lives to cross desert and sea.
The plight of migrants who go missing in the Mediterranean vividly underscores the failure of an overly securitized approach to managing irregular migration. Instead of pursuing humane and effective solutions, the focus has gravitated toward a robust security framework that not only exacerbates the crisis but ignores the structural issues at the heart of the problem.
Take, for example, an EU-sponsored project for training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard. In theory, the aim is to curb irregular migration. But evidence suggests this approach often results in an increased risk of migrant deaths; a chilling consequence of prioritizing border security over the right to life.
Despite the bleakness of a situation that almost always reverts to a woeful status quo, experts and activists remain optimistic as they assert that more can, and must, be done. So why do governments hesitate to abandon their overly securitized interventions in favor of more humanitarian and effective solutions?
Firstly, it boils down to an uncomfortable truth, which is that for many governments, the “us versus them” rhetoric is politically rewarding. Deploying military resources to guard coasts and intercept vessels filled with desperate migrants is as much about sending a potent message to domestic electorates — a show of strength, so to speak, a protection against “potential threats” to economic stability, cultural identity and national security — as it is about managing migration.

The plight of migrants underscores the failure of an overly securitized approach to managing irregular migration.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Another aspect of the issue is the perceived efficacy and expedience of security related measures. When compared with long-term investments in developmental aid or the construction of robust asylum systems, erecting fences, patrolling coasts and bolstering detention facilities offer what can initially appear to be tangible, quick-fix solutions, albeit ones that are myopic and highly counterproductive.
It is essential for any discourse, policymaking or activism on the issue of irregular migration to be steered toward a collective recognition of the very grim reality and the cultivation of the political will for substantive reforms. If the world continues to frame migration as a security challenge instead of addressing it for what it is — a humanitarian issue — we risk perpetuating the tragic cycle of death and despair.
We should desist from trying to prevent irregular migration, which often entails striking deals with aspiring despots to intercept boats and funding squalid camps labeled as “detention centers” that can only temporarily hold undeterred migrants. An overly securitized focus diverts attention and resources from more effective responses that could save lives and preempt the inevitable plight of those who embark on perilous journeys.
Moreover, the identification of migrants presents a critical challenge. Of the nearly 30,000 people who have gone missing in the Mediterranean, only about 13 percent of bodies are ever recovered by European authorities, leaving most of these lost souls unidentified and their families without closure.
The lack of a coordinated, international effort to properly identify and process the dead is a glaring gap in the system. While organizations such as the International Organization for Migration and the Red Cross do their best to piece together the fragments of these shattered lives, they can only do so much.
The truth is that those with the most power to intervene appear unwilling to truly confront the crisis. Instead, they persist in upholding a status quo that amounts to little more than official trips and money changing hands, punctuated by ceaseless squabbles over minutiae and language specificity in regulations that often lead nowhere.
It is evident that the current approaches to stemming irregular migration while upholding human rights are woefully inadequate. Far from grappling with the reality, let alone the gravity, of the problem, they serve only to perpetuate an ever-growing divide between European nations. Meanwhile, human suffering continues unchecked.
In other words, not only is a “security first” approach ineffective, it ignores the fact that investing in safer migration pathways, the strategic distribution of aid in fragile regions, and comprehensive integration strategies for asylum seekers and refugees could help pave the way for a lasting and humane solution to this pressing challenge.
After all, at the heart of this crisis there are human lives, each of which has an innate right to safety, dignity and a chance of a better future.
Also, contrary to the assumption that securitization deters migration, studies suggest, paradoxically, that increasing border controls can actually encourage irregular migration. As the available legal routes become more constrained, desperate individuals are pushed toward more dangerous paths and into the arms of enterprising traffickers, fueling illicit economies in ungoverned spaces. An overly securitized approach therefore ends up exacerbating the very problem it aims to solve.
Naturally, change is long overdue and it is past time for the world’s leaders to shelve their platitudes and hollow promises, and take meaningful action to address this snowballing disaster. In fulfilling our collective responsibility toward the preservation of human life, not only will we be compelled to acknowledge the scale of the tragedy, it will also help us chart a course toward a new era of empathy and understanding in which the silent horrors echoing across the Mediterranean are silenced no more.
A new approach must prioritize human rights, dignity and cooperation, through policies that extend beyond mere containment and deterrence. Europe, North Africa and the wider international community owe it to themselves, and to the thousands of lives lost, to create a system that is built on empathy, resilience and, above all, humanity. The silent terror of the Mediterranean demands nothing less.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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