The UK’s The Telegraph newspaper has reported 1,750 people as having died attempting to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat this year. It has been eight years since I encountered first-hand the shortcomings of European immigration policy, which purpose was to address the “irregular” arrival of migrants in Europe. After volunteering at a refugee reception centre in the Commonwealth country of Malta in 2008, and seeing the extremely poor living conditions provided to African asylum seekers and migrants, I took to researching and writing about the topic in order to better understand how national and supranational directives could fail to ensure basic rights for migrants arriving in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean Sea via boat.
Indeed, eight years ago media outlets worldwide were describing the arrival of African migrants on European shores as a crisis, and issues such as mandatory detention were making headlines for simply being punitive measures to deter future people from crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat. Today we are seeing an escalation of human devastation, with the recent mass death of hundreds of migrants, some of whose bodies were recently buried in Malta. Meanwhile, as reported by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), European governments are continuing to fall short of guaranteeing the fundamental rights of migrants who enter their countries, even though EU Directives state otherwise.
As reported by Ali Bayat in a recent article on migration in the Royal Commonwealth Society’s Commonwealth Voices periodical, migration among Commonwealth countries is not a new phenomenon by any means. However, Commonwealth migration often diverges sharply from that in the Mediterranean region as it is largely controlled, whereas the migration of African migrants to Europe could be said to be out of control, sporadic, and unpredictable (exceptions can be made, of course, in cases such as the arrival of migrants in Australia). It is these latter points related to the Mediterranean migration phenomenon which become points of concern for Europeans and European governments expressing individual and collective sovereignty. Commonwealth countries such as Canada have not received emigration on the same scale, however, when “irregular” migration to Canada has occurred - such as the 2010 arrival of 500 Sri Lankan refugees on the country’s Pacific shores – reactions of the Canadian receiving community have been almost identical to that of Europeans: fears around future arrivals and human trafficking; concerns over the possible migration of terrorists; and frustration over the potential financial costs to the country’s social programs.
It is important that Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth governments alike remain cognizant of the potential for immigration policies to negatively impact the well-being of both citizens and non-citizens. While States have a fundamental right to exert sovereignty and territoriality, particularly in this time of crisis, Commonwealth governments, which have a long history as immigrant-receiving nations, can provide support to Mediterranean governments to create policies that protect people who are seeking freedom from the economic repression and physical danger of their home countries.
As the death toll in the Mediterranean region continues to rise, I cannot help but share my concern for the future well-being of the European immigration system. Eight years ago researchers and the media were deploring governments’ “race to the bottom” with regards to protecting migrants: what we are seeing today does not indicate that detention or the forced return of migrants to their home countries is a viable solution. We need to look holistically at the conditions causing people to leave their homes and take policy-level steps towards ensuring genuine, global economic equality before we will see a reduction in human loss related to Mediterranean migration.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.
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