Aid agencies warn measures in the Balkans leave stranded families without shelter and could lead to a rise in smuggling.
While several European governments reinforced their walls, reinstated border controls, and implemented repressive policies against refugees from the Middle East and Africa, two ambitious initiatives aim to offer alternatives to the dangerous journeys undertaken by those fleeing wars and oppression.
The Berlin-based Center for Political Beauty has proposed the building of a 230km bridge linking the continents of Africa and Europe. While another initiative, working in parallel with the bridge proposal, aims to open the first humanitarian corridors for safe passage into Europe.
The second project was initiated by two organisations, the Federation of Evangelical Churches and the Sant’Egidio Community. The Italian government has agreed to participate in the scheme, which hopes to begin flying refugees from Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia to safety in Italy by the end of January.
An unconventional project
In an attempt to lower the number of death and to limit the need for refugees to resort to traffickers, the proposed Jean-Monnet Bridge, named after the founding father of the European Union, would connect the coast of al-Huwariyah, Tunisia, to Agrigento, Italy.
“This [bridge construction] is a difficult, but not impossible long-term project,” Philipp Ruch, the director and founder of the Center for Political Beauty, told Al Jazeera.
The idea came to him six years ago, before the rest of the world was even aware that refugees were dying in high numbers trying to cross the Mediterranean. between January and December of this year alone.
The organisation has submitted the bridge project plan to the EU’s Internal Security Fund for consideration. They estimate the project will cost around 230bn euros ($254bn) and, if approved, they hope to start work in 2017, with a projected completion date in 2030.
In the meantime, the organisation hopes to place 1,000 rescue platforms in the waters between Africa and Europe. These platforms would be equipped with life vests, emergency call devices, anchors, navigation lights, food reserves and solar panels.
The organisation has managed to install one such platform in the international waters of the Mediterranean. At a cost of 50,000 euros ($55,000), raised through a fundraising campaign, the Center for Political Beauty installed a six-by-six-metre platform, named Aylan 1 after the refugee toddler who drowned in September. They hope to be able to raise money for more platforms soon.
“It could be seen as an unorthodox idea, but it is what we need,” Ruch said.
“European countries do not have the political will to give refugees the same rights as we have – for example, enable them to buy a normal flight ticket. Consequently, these people are forced to cross the Mediterranean and risk their lives.
“If the policy is crazy, why can’t we be crazy, as well?” Ruch said.
The project aims to counteract the influence and power of smugglers over refugees, which they see as the result of increasingly tight border controls that expand the demand for human traffickers.
Vulnerable refugees are often forced to resort to criminal organisations for help to cross the Mediterranean, risking their lives in the process. But while these criminal networks place little value on human life, they do benefit from selling a wide range of services to the refugees, including physical transportation, illegal border crossings and the procurement of false identity documents.
“People need mobility, and smugglers are offering mobility services,” Francois Crepeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants and a professor of law at McGill University in Canada, told Al Jazeera.
“If you were to allow mobility, the smugglers would have no [reason for existing] because people would choose the cheap, safe and legal way of mobility over paying and risking the lives of their kids,” Crepeau said.
This is where the second initiative, which proposes the creation of a humanitarian pipeline, would play a crucial role in saving lives. It would provide a legal and safe route that allows migrants to travel to Italy by plane, directly from Lebanon, Morocco and Ethiopia with humanitarian visas from the Italian government.
The pilot project will target vulnerable refugees based in the three countries where partner organisations, such as Operazione Colomba in Lebanon, can help identify those most in need, regardless of their religion.
“We don’t want to be the passive witnesses of this dramatic spectacle of death that takes place on our shores,” said Cesare Zucconi, the secretary-general of the Sant’Egidio Community.
“We want to help people in need whatever their religion or nationality. Our aim is to assist the most vulnerable refugees. For example, our beneficiaries in Lebanon are all Syrians Muslims,” Zucconi told Al Jazeera.
The Italian government has agreed to issue 1,000 humanitarian visas to enable refugees to travel via plane to Italy safely and legally. The pipeline would be financed entirely by the Federation of Evangelical churches and the Sant’Egidio community in the hope of providing an alternative to what they call “death journeys”.
Partnering communities will cover the travel costs with funding coming from donations regulated by the “otto per mille” law, which allows Italian taxpayers to donate 0.8 percent of their annual income tax to any state-recognised organisation.
The religious communities would then organise the resettlement and integration processes.
“We would pay 300-400 euros [$330-$440] per person – the price of a flight ticket. A much lower figure compared with the money paid to the smugglers,” said Zucconi. He added that “these humanitarian pipelines are safe and devoid of risks, both for refugees and for host countries, because the identification of the refugees takes place before their departure”.
Mustering the political will
These initiatives stand as alternatives to the dangerous journeys currently endured by refugees, but the political will to implement similar measures seems to be lacking.
“If there was the political will, it would not be necessary to build a 230km bridge,” said Nando Sigona, a senior lecturer and fellow at the University of Birmingham.
The bridge is “economically and politically unsustainable since it would put more pressure on countries like Italy,” said Sigona, but “there are other viable options that could be taken”.
Refugees could be transported by ferry, as has happened in Greece this summer, or by sponsoring humanitarian corridors, Sigona said. But, there still seems to be little initiative from governments in finding alternative, long-term, and sustainable solutions to the refugee crisis.
More than anything, the organisers of the humanitarian bridge and pipeline initiatives hope that the projects can lead by example, pushing other institutions and organisations to act.