Image: Lāsma Artmane (Unsplash)


The number of migrants making the journey across the Mediterranean sea to Europe has risen significantly over the last few years and continues to rise. Subsequently, the European Union’s response to the matter has been less than admirable, as it has chosen to neglect its responsibilities in the Mediterranean and often pursue means to deter migrants and refugees from seeking asylum in Europe. Consequently, several migrants have drowned in the Central Mediterranean. Thus, it is the intention of this article to assess the European Union’s policy as well as its approach to irregular migration in the Mediterranean. In doing so, this article will assess the approaches undertaken by certain European Union (EU) member states to irregular migration and the implications of these approaches. 

Migration in the Mediterranean has been mostly irregular migration, this refers to the movement of persons outside the parameters of the legal frameworks of international law and regulations. This has taken on two main forms, economic migration, migrants who are generally in search of economic opportunities, namely employment and political migration, this refers to political refugees, fleeing from conflict or persecution in their own countries. Granted they are given asylum, political refugees are even more vulnerable than those migrating for economic reasons as they often lack the necessary expertise/skills to gain employment and are thus vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation on the labour market. Migration in the EU is divided into two types, intra-community migration from one member state to another and extra-community migration, this refers to migration outside the EU space. The former has been the main concern of the United Kingdom (UK) expressed through BREXIT (the withdrawal of the UK from the EU), while the latter has remained a priority of the EU as a whole, specifically the states most affected by irregular migration in the Mediterranean, this includes Italy, Greece, Malta, and Spain. Since the 2015 migration crisis (Europe’s biggest influx of migrants and refugees since the second World War), EU member states have failed to reach an agreement on an approach to irregular migration, as a result tensions between its member states and divergent approaches have hampered efforts to address mass migration.

In terms of its migration policy, the EU continues to outsource border management. To confront the issue of irregular migration the EU and its member states have adopted a policy of externalisation, this entails externalising its migration and asylum policies. The externalisation of migration controls refers to unilateral, bilateral and/or multilateral state engagement to prevent migrants from entering the legal jurisdictions or sovereign territories of destination states. Through a series of readmission agreements with third countries, the EU has facilitated the readmission of third-country nationals living in Europe to their home countries. It initially shifted the responsibility of hosting asylum seekers to non-EU states on the Western Balkan migration route and then to Turkey. Moreover, the EU renewed its efforts to establish migration partnerships with African countries. Certain EU member states have fully adopted this externalisation policy, namely Italy. The number of refugees (most of whom come from war-torn Libya), that have arrived in Italy this year has tripled since 2019, when the figure stood at approximately 11 000. Most rescued migrants are disembarked in Italy’s ports; as a result, Italy has undertaken bilateral actions to reduce the flow of migration, often cooperating with Libya. Moreover, Italy has been pushing back migrants from international waters away from its legal jurisdiction and towards Libya.  This is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement, which under international human rights law prevents a state from returning asylum seekers to a country where they may likely face persecution. Many of the refugees in Libya often come from other war-torn countries like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea, these refugees pass through and take refuge in Libya en route to Europe. 

In an attempt to prevent migration in the Mediterranean, the EU has not only ceased its Search and Rescue (SAR) activities, which it believes constitutes a pull-factor, it has also criminalised private sea rescues. Consequently, migrants, many of whom have drowned, have been left afloat in the Central Mediterranean unable to disembark due to EU bureaucratic politics. This leaves rescue boats in the sea for days until eventually one of the EU member states accepts the responsibility to host these migrants. The EU’s withdrawal from rescue operations constitutes a blatant disregard of its responsibility in the region and a violation of international law and international human rights law. The EU has not only withdrawn from SAR activities, but it has also began using drones to monitor irregular activities at sea. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has invested in drones to monitor migrants from afar, thus avoiding its responsibility to assist those in distress. Consequently, several refugees have drowned in the Central Mediterranean, this year alone the death toll has risen to over 900. The agency has also been accused of complicity in pushbacks aimed at preventing migrants from crossing the Aegean Sea. Cessation of EU sea patrols has done nothing to curb irregular migration, but rather it has promoted increased illicit activities such as the smuggling and trafficking of migrants. Presently, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a justification for the EU to prevent the disembarkation of migrants from rescue boats in the name of its national security and that of its people. 


The EU’s inability to devise a coherent policy framework and collective strategies towards irregular migration in the Mediterranean has not only highlighted its bureaucratic inefficiencies and internal divisions but has also created a major human rights crisis in the Mediterranean. Its attitude towards migration, its framing of the matter and its policy have fuelled anti-migrant sentiments in Europe, and entrenched the discourse of ‘othering’, the idea of an ‘us versus them’. This in turn, has very serious implications on the treatment of migrants once they reach Europe’s borders, it has resulted in the demonisation of migrants and perpetuated a cycle of migrant abuse. The main issue remains the avoidance by the EU and its member states to fulfil their international responsibilities. With regards to migration, are the substantive normative principles of the EU, specifically those which enshrine ‘associative human rights’ and ‘social solidarity’ merely rhetoric? Perhaps the EU places its regional security and the national security of its member states above the protection of human rights, specifically those of migrants. The EU’s withdrawal from SAR activities on the basis that they constitute a pull factor clearly lacks corroboration, as irregular migration has continued regardless of the EU’s migration strategies and policy to dissuade migration. Human insecurity is a major contributing factor of forced migration. As long as poverty, environmental crises and conflict persist in Africa and the rest of the developing world, irregular migration to the developed world will continue. The same phenomenon is observable in resettlements in Africa and the Middle East, with many fleeing from war-torn countries seeking refuge in Turkey or in African states, most notably Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan. Is the pattern of mass migration to Europe perhaps not poetic justice? In a way, the increase in irregular migration seems to be an ironic redress of the injustices of colonialism and a reclamation of the development Africa was so unjustly denied. The question is, do Africans have a right to claim access to Europe and on what basis? European migrants are accommodated in Africa, yet African migrants are not afforded the same access to the EU space, why is that? In truth, conflict, insecurity and underdevelopment in the Periphery countries of the Global South, specifically in Africa are a long-lasting legacy of European imperial domination and colonial exploitation.

The responsibility to address these matters may primarily lay with periphery countries however, the support of developed countries is necessary. The responsibility to address mass migration lies with both the state of origin and the receiving state. Migration is not the problem, rather it is an underlying issue of persisting socio-economic and political issues. It is a matter of morality, human rights and political consideration combined. If Europe truly seeks to curb irregular migration in the Mediterranean, it must relinquish its contradictory objectives which fuel conflict and hinder progress and development in Africa. The EU must adopt a multi-pronged strategy in cooperation with developing states in order to appropriately manage its migration responsibilities. This policy needs to address and remedy the complex web of push factors as well as increase the EU’s efforts to share the responsibility of hosting migrants within its region.     

Tshegofatso Ramachela is a certified paralegal and has an undergraduate degree in International Studies, Political Sciences and History from the University of Pretoria. She is a humanitarian, an intersectional postcolonial feminist and an aspiring international development and peace worker, who hopes to one day be a Doctoral student. Tshegofatso is a permanent member of The Art of Politics writing staff.

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