The Mediterranean: Graveyard of European values

Europe claims to be a haven of democracy, but rejects the very men, women and children who flee dictatorship.

Migrants arrive at the Sicilian harbor of Augusta [Reuters]
Migrants arrive at the Sicilian harbour of Augusta [Reuters]

Indifference, greed and cynicism have caused the death of 800 migrants earlier this week in the Mediterranean. The tragic death of anonymous migrants, escaping from misery and atrocities in the hope of a better life, adds up to an already staggering tally as at least 1,700 of them have lost their lives since the beginning of the year. The month of April alone has seen more deaths than the years 2012 and 2013 combined: 1,200. Since the beginning of the year, a migrant has died every two hours. 

Yet, the enumeration of casualties and the list of makeshift embarkations sinking in the abyss seem to fall on deaf ears. While the average citizen remained glued for weeks in front of his television screen after the crashes of a handful of airplanes over the last two years which monopolised the headlines of every news organisation, the weekly drowning of anonymous migrants attempting to peacefully cross borders under the abuse of criminal smugglers has only been met with silence and unease.

The Mediterranean Sea has become a graveyard and the answer from European politicians has been mainly motivated by egotistical – if not nationalistic – pecuniary considerations.

Survivor recalls Mediterranean migrant boat tragedy

The succession of humanitarian catastrophes underline again the lack of solidarity from the European Union both towards neighbouring countries and also among its very members.

Philanthropic responsibility

The number of casualties has drastically increased over the last few months, not only because of a rise in the number of migration candidates but rather because the EU has shied away from its philanthropic responsibility and values.

Until last November, following the shipwreck which caused the death of 360 Palestinian and Syrian migrants in Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian government ran an ambitious recovery programme called “Mare Nostrum”, saving an estimated 150,000 migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. The fact that the cost of the programme was solely supported by Rome without European financing proved to be a show of egotism from other EU countries.

Yet cynicism and egotism reached a peak when the cost was deemed too high for Italy’s finances and European partners were called upon to help. The UK lead lobbying efforts to skim down the programme from rescue operations to mere border patrols arguing that the Mare Nostrum initiative led to an unintended “pull factor” encouraging more migrants to come. The pretext is a fallacy. The severity of the humanitarian crisis in Syria and in refugee camps is such that migrants are ready to attempt the crossing whatever the risk.

Europeans leaders, blinded by short term budgetary considerations, fail to realise that we are facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.


Europeans leaders, blinded by short term budgetary considerations, fail to realise that we are facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. They also suffer from severe memory loss. At the end of a decade of economic crisis in the 1930s, the Spanish did benefit from French generosity in rescuing republican political refugees during the Civil War in the Hispanic peninsula.

And what would have been the future of Europe if the British had similarly closed the Channel to French refugees fleeing the Nazi barbaric exactions in 1940?   

EU’s loss of soul

Instead of providing ambitious answers to conflicts destabilising security in its neighbourhood, the EU has lost its very soul. While it constantly claims to be a haven of democracy and liberalism, it rejects in the sea, the very men, women, and children who flee dictatorship and underdevelopment.

Some 20 percent of refugees are from Eritrea, who are fleeing from one of the bloodiest and most authoritarian regimes, ranked 180th (and last) in the World Press Freedom Index ranking by Reporters Without Borders.

Ironically, the EU seems ready to fund projects groomed by Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afwerki, which create a handful of jobs locally rather than use the money to prevent casualties. The “pull factor” brandished by the British is at best a pretext for egoistic avarice and nationalistic populism as European leaders know fully well that until the roots of migration (civil wars, torture, exactions) are not squashed, the flow will continue.

No one leaves his home country and family with pleasure. The answer to the problem can only come through support for sustainable and comprehensive local development and an ambitious foreign policy. 

Italian vessel carrying rescued migrants comes into dock in Sicily [AFP]
Italian vessel carrying rescued migrants comes into dock in Sicily [AFP]

Europe’s timid approach to this historic humanitarian crisis will eventually lead to its own collapse.

Politically, by highlighting national egotism, it will eventually shutter the solidarity pact that led to its very creation. Economically, it is also representative of the lack of vision and long term investments that have resulted in its current difficulties.

The Europeans display the extent of their cowardice to Africa at a time when the Chinese and Americans multiply often profitable bilateral investments in a continent who displayed an average growth of 5.2 percent last year.

Migrant populations could be the very breath of liberal and democratic aspirations that could pull the EU away from the stale xenophobia promoted by its growing extreme right parties.

Yet, as its leaders fail to rise up to their historic responsibility, nationalism, egotism and short term electoral considerations will soon lead to the European collapse as fast as a refugee boat sinking in the Mediterranean Sea.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.