The European Union (EU) and its member states have sought to curb unauthorized maritime migrant arrivals through a proactive combination of deterrence, intelligence, surveillance, anti-smuggling activities, border enforcement, and policing and readmission collaboration with Turkey, Libya, and Libya’s African neighbors. Through these actions, the right to seek asylum is being de facto transformed into a state-granted permission to seek asylum. Containment policies ensure that one cannot ask for sovereign permission without first paying smugglers.
In support of their policies, EU and national authorities widely employ an anti-smuggling discourse that focuses on the ruthlessness of smugglers and the passive victimhood of migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees. This rhetoric aligns itself with what is perceived to be politically palatable, and contributes to preserving a volatile status quo. EU and national policies have failed to curb significantly maritime arrivals. Migrants face worsened conditions on Libyan soil, and death at sea. In recent memory, 2011 was seen as the deadliest year on record for Mediterranean migrations, only to be surpassed first by 2014 and then by 2016. During 2017, at least 3,119 persons died or went missing in the Mediterranean Sea (UNHCR 2017b). Deterrence, containment, and the related war on smuggling prove ineffective, and do not justify such a heavy cost. They quell the outrage cyclically generated by powerful images of Mediterranean carnage, even as they fail to mitigate the carnage itself.
European and other liberal-democratic governments can act in more pragmatic, just, and dignified ways, including by attending to migrant agency and to local civic engagements. Provisions for family reunification, refugee resettlement, study visas and temporary protection should be enhanced. More ambitiously, governments need to reverse the very policies that eviscerate the right to seek asylum. Additionally, labor immigration quotas should be set that go beyond attracting skilled “talent” and seasonal workers, to reflect the demands of the job market and of Europe’s ageing societies, while protecting worker rights. Such measures would lessen unauthorized arrivals and the demand for smugglers, ease asylum workloads, and challenge nativist arguments. There is always a political market for effective policies such as these, but until European authorities begin to reject easy resort to tropes of ruthless smuggler criminality, that market will remain disturbingly untapped.