The EU summit that begins today is supposed to focus on the digital economy and monetary union—but there’s a good chance it will be overshadowed by concerns about immigration.
Almost 20,000 people have died attempting to cross into Europe via the southern Mediterranean over the past 20 years. Earlier this month, after yet another boat carrying undocumented migrants went down, the Maltese Prime Minister claimed that we are turning the sea into a “cemetery.” The Italian Prime Minister described it as a “tomb.”
Twenty thousand is an unbelievable figure, yet, until recently, not many people have been aware of it because it rarely makes the news outside of the areas directly affected—Cyprus, Greece, Italy and my own country, Malta; Europe’s “frontier” nations and the small islands like Malta, Sicily and Lampedusa that mark the entrance to Europe for those travelling from Africa and the Middle East. Here, residents receive regular reports of boats capsizing or running into trouble, the occupants being pulled from the sea in lengthy rescue operations. In Malta, particularly during the summer months when the weather is good and more boats attempt the crossing, barely a week passes by without such an incident appearing in the papers. The Maltese armed forces do a fantastic job of intercepting boats early as they pass into Maltese waters or evacuating them when they run into difficulties—especially given their limited resources (Malta is “not really what you might call a military superpower,” the Prime Minister noted)—but, as with the recent tragedy near Lampedusa, help sometimes arrives too late.
It’s a relief that the rest of the European media has finally woken up to the situation. If hundreds of westerners drowned off the coast of Italy it would be front page news—reports concerning the tragic sinking of the Costa Concordia, in which 32 people lost their lives, still occasionally turn up in the pages of British newspapers, almost two years after the event. But the hundreds of African migrants drowning in the sea around Italy and Malta year after year rarely get a mention. And the media attention is important, because it may provide a much-needed trigger for the EU to finally do something about this.
European policies—or a lack thereof—have too often done little to stem this ever-growing death toll. There were unconfirmed reports, for example, that three fishing boats sailed past the boat near Lampedusa on which 300 migrants lost…