Can Europe stay border-free internally if it can’t guarantee its shared external border? That’s one of the key questions facing the European Union as it struggles with the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis. As Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov put it in 2016: Schengen cannot survive if Europe becomes “a yard with a broken fence”.
Currently, the external border of the EU is patrolled by the border and coast guards of the various Member States, supported by and in coordination with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (more commonly known as ‘Frontex’). Recently re-tooled and re-launched in 2016, Frontex now has an annual budget of over €300 million euros. Which seems like a lot of money. However, by comparison, the United States Coast Guard on its own (i.e. not including US Border Patrol) has an annual budget of more than €8 billion.
The comparison is perhaps a little unfair on Frontex. The US Coast Guard is estimated to be the 12th largest navy in the world, and is regularly deployed in armed conflicts internationally. Nevertheless, would a single European agency with a larger budget be more effective at policing Europe’s coastal waters?
In order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis will be on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
This week, we are looking at Lampedusa, Italy. For a long time, Lampedusa has been famous as an island on the “frontlines” of the refugee crisis. The numbers of people reaching Italian waters by boat does seem to be slowing; less than 11,000 people reached Lampedusa in the whole of 2016. Nevertheless, roughly 400,000 people have arrived there over the last two decades, while an estimated 15,000 have died attempting the crossing.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Dennis, who very much supports the idea of a European Coastguard. He believes there would be real public support for Europeanising border control, presumably to an even greater extent than Frontex does today. Is he right?
To get a response, we spoke to Judith Sunderland, Associate Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. What would she say to Dennis?
Yeah, it took quite a while for EU countries to accept the Frontex “reloaded”, which is what we have now – which is the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. But, of course, it is true that that agency depends on contributions from Member States and its autonomy is limited. There’s a clear reason for that: Many countries don’t want to give up their sovereignty. Border control is seen very much as the sovereign right of individual Member States; Cooperation at the EU level is certainly promoted and pursued, but most EU countries feel quite strongly about retaining a high level of sovereignty.
From my perspective, the response of the EU on migration and refugee flows has always been focused primarily on border control: How to close the borders, how to prevent the boats arriving, how to limit the number of people getting across land borders. Relatively little attention has been paid to ensuring the rights of those people both at the borders and within EU territory, and very little attention paid to expanding safe and legal channels so that fewer people have to resort to unlawful and dangerous ways to get to the EU.
I would say that all border control attempts have to be based on law and have to be respectful of people’s rights. That’s one of the reasons I was so distressed when they adopted the new Border and Coast Guard regulations, because they actually struck out a proposal to include in the mandate of the new agency search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. One of the most appalling facets of this whole phenomenon is deaths at sea in the Mediterranean. It is our view, shared by many others, that the EU and individual Member States have done very little to prevent those deaths, with the exception of Italy which has done a tremendous amount (though it is changing its tune quite rapidly these days).
So, border control: Yes. Every country has a sovereign right to control its borders and decide who can remain on its territory. But those procedures and mechanisms have to be based on law and governed by respect for people’s lives.
To get another perspective, we put the same comment to Marco Rotunno, Communication / PI Associate for Sicily at UNHCR Italy. What would he say?
This is a broader discussion that is also linked to both rescue boats and NGO boats (which are considered by some parts of public opinion to be a “pull factor” for refugees). I think this discussion on border control misses the broader picture including the “push factors”; i.e. the things pushing people out of their countries of origin. I’m talking about unstable countries where there is no official war – like in Syria – but where the country is very unstable and has militias, like Libya, for instance, or Nigeria, where part of the country has many refugees because of Boko Haram. It’s a very unstable situation that brings a lot of people to Libya who then to try to cross the sea.
That said, for us, at that moment, rescuing lives at sea is necessary and compulsory, it’s not debatable. So, for us, the most important thing is that less lives are lost – because still the number is very high even with the EU presence and some NGOs, still there are lives lost in this crossing.
Nevertheless, if you explore different solutions than just border control then there would be less people facing the only option of attempting a crossing. We speak with them when they arrive at the ports in Sicily, and they say they had no other option. There are people stranded in terrible conditions in Libya, who have had to pay smugglers multiple times. So, if people go to Libya, also solutions should be found before they try their only option for now. Give them protection; identify the most vulnerable people and resettle them from there, which is also another solution.
Should Europe have a single, common coast guard? Or are national coast guards (in coordination with Frontex) enough? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!