CNN's Fred Pleitgen went onboard a surveillance aircraft with Frontex on a mission to surveil the waters around southern Italy for immigrants being smuggled into the EU.
Patrolling the 'Sea of Death'
03:50 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ska Keller is a Member of the European Parliament and the migration spokesperson for the Greens/EFA group.

Story highlights

EU needs a fundamental policy change to prevent further migrant boat tragedies

EU must expand use of visas on humanitarian grounds to provide safe passage

Keller: Southern EU states oppose legally binding rules on saving migrants at sea

Keller: Northern EU states have blocked reforms to Dublin system of handling refugees

CNN  — 

The migrants that died on the shores of Lampedusa in early October have yet to change the European approach to migration and refugees – and protecting Europe against refugees rather than protecting the refugees themselves is unfortunately still the guiding principle.

But if Europe wants to avoid more tragedies of this sort on its shores, its heads of state and government need to fundamentally change their migration and asylum policies. Rather than just fighting smugglers, we need to create more possibilities for refugees and migrants to enter the European Union legally without risking their lives.

INFOGRAPHIC: How illegal immigrants enter the EU

Europe needs to effectively improve rescue at sea rather than just paying lip service to it. And we need a mechanism for sharing responsibilities for European refugees among all EU member states instead of leaving the southern member states alone with this task and partly outsourcing it to third countries.

Ska Keller

The current EU policy of sealing off borders against migrants and refugees has not just turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass grave – it also has resulted in an unacceptable policy for deciding whom to help.

Rather than following a humanitarian approach, a Darwinist survival of the fittest is the guiding principle. The refugees that find shelter in Europe are not the ones that most urgently need our help, but the ones that are the fittest to survive the dangerous journey to Europe – young men that are able to swim better than children, for instance.

MORE: On patrol with Frontex in the ‘sea of death’

A humanitarian approach requires creating legal ways of entry for refugees. EU member states must utilize the option of humanitarian visas provided for by the EU Visa Code much more extensively, particularly for vulnerable refugees such as children, pregnant women and traumatized persons. With a humanitarian visa, refugees could enter the EU in a safe and legal way instead risking their lives on overcrowded and unseaworthy rubber boats.

Providing legal means of entry would also help to dry out the criminal trade in smuggling and human trafficking. It would tackle the roots of the problem rather than just its symptoms. Stricter border surveillance as envisaged by the European ministers of interior has the opposite effect. It makes smuggling even more lucrative – and the journey to Europe even more dangerous.

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The second lesson the EU must draw from Lampedusa is that Europe urgently needs to improve its coordination for saving lives at sea. According to international law, all EU member states have an obligation to help people in distress at sea. Yet in practice, some member states pretend that they have to rescue only if there are clear requests for help, allowing them to ignore dangerously overcrowded and ill-equipped refugee boats.

Even worse, some captains appear to have turned a blind eye to refugees in need of help. An investigation by the Council of Europe into the death of 63 migrants at sea in 2011 quoted survivors who said that their boat came into contact with a number of other vessels that ignored their “obvious distress signals.”

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Europe’s core problem is not a lack of surveillance tools for detecting boats in distress, as the EU commission and member states suggest. Europe’s core problem is a lack of willingness to rescue. Even after Lampedusa, all southern EU member states are opposing legally binding rules on saving migrants in joint operations with Europe’s border agency Frontex, because it would oblige them to rescue more refugees. This is unacceptable.

We urgently need a common and coordinated approach to search and rescue in the Mediterranean area. But a Frontex-led search-and-rescue operation “from Cyprus to Spain” as suggested by the European Commission is useless. What we need is efficient coordination among member states based on clear and binding rules on distress and rescue obligations, as well as on common rules for where to disembark the rescued refugees.

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At the heart of the European approach of turning refugees away rather than helping and protecting them is the so-called “Dublin system.” It places the responsibility for European boat refugees solely on the member states along the EU’s external borders. According to the Dublin system, the member state where a refugee first arrives in the EU bears responsibility for him or her. Although just reformed this summer, the system does not include any effective mechanism for more responsibility-sharing among member states. Northern member states such as Germany blocked all attempts to reform the system. Instead of supporting their fellow southern Europeans by taking refugees, member states tend to seal off their borders and externalize them to third countries such as Libya where refugees are neither protected nor safe.

Clearly, Europe cannot continue this way. For the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner to be worthy of the honor, it needs to swiftly draw consequences out of the man-made disaster at Lampedusa. If not now, when?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ska Keller.