One rescue operation.

Photographer: Argiris Mantikos/AFP/Getty Images

Stopping Refugee Shipwrecks

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
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There were ways to save the hundreds of people -- perhaps 700, maybe even 950 -- who drowned off the Libyan coast yesterday while attempting to escape to Europe. And there are ways to save those who inevitably follow them onto the high seas. But the first step is for countries to stop passing the buck. The responsibility falls not just to European nations, but to the U.S., too.

Human traffickers have preferred the sea route to Italy from Libya since the 1990s. Other paths have been discovered and cut off, but this one has remained, according to a 2014 paper by Philippe Fargues and Sara Bonfanti of the European University Institute's Migration Policy Center:

Migration Policy Center, European University Institute

In 2014, however, the number of arrivals in Europe, mostly Italy, by that route rose sharply:

Migration Policy Center, European University Institute

The jump, Fargues and Bonfanti say, "must be attributed to a conjunction of factors: certainly the massive rescue operation launched by Italy starting from October 2013, but also the mounting waves of displaced people in the Middle East and the breakdown of the last barrier between Africa and Europe with the collapse of the state in Libya."

The rescue operation they refer to was called Mare Nostrum, a program that cost Italy 9 million euros a month ($9.7 million). Italy kept demanding that other European countries chip in, since most of the migrants who reached Italian islands then went on to seek asylum or illegal work elsewhere. But no one in Europe wanted to do that, and not just for the cynical reason that people drowning near Italian shores weren't an immediate political problem for them. The search-and-rescue program served as a safety net for the human traffickers, and other Europeans took exception to that.

So last December, Italy scrapped Mare Nostrum, and it was replaced with a more limited pan-European effort called Triton, with a monthly budget of about 3 million euros. Even so, the U.K. refused to support it because the government felt it would only encourage more illegal crossings. Triton has saved more than 22,000 migrants since it began, but it has proved inadequate; people have continued dying by the hundreds. "Unfortunately Mare Nostrum was never replaced by an equivalent capacity to rescue people, and at the same time by the legal avenues for those who need protection to be able to come to Europe," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said last week after another 400 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean.

The most recent shipwreck, which may be the biggest in the Libya route's history, will prompt more discussion of what European countries can do to stop the deaths. It's not much.

Europe could invest in a broader search-and-rescue operation, but that wouldn't completely rule out shipwrecks and would probably increase the traffic. European security services could try harder to infiltrate and shut down trafficking organizations, but with Libya a failed state, new networks would form immediately. Finally, Europeans could, as Fargues and Bonfanti suggest, establish refugee assistance centers in Libya and other transit countries, helping direct the flow of legitimate refugees to European destinations. That's the most reasonable palliative proposal, but, like the rescue efforts, it would probably increase the influx of refugees to Europe beyond countries' capacity to help them. And those rejected by the refugee centers would still pile into boats and sail off into rough waters.

The most comprehensive solution would be to eliminate the causes of the illegal traffic or, failing that, to involve more countries in helping the refugees. 

Data show that most people seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Italy and, to a lesser extent, Greece, Malta and Spain, are not economic migrants but refugees who face death or severe hardship if they stay home. Here are two more charts from Fargues and Bonfanti's paper:

Italian Ministry of the Interior

During the Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia, illegal crossings from that country peaked, but today by far the most seafaring migrants come from Syria and Eritrea. 

Eritreans are fleeing a cruel dictatorship that, among other things, calls up people for national service for indefinite periods and almost without pay. There's no way to fix this problem short of regime change, and perhaps the only peaceful solution is to send refugees somewhere closer to Eritrea's borders.

Syria is another matter. There, a U.S.-led coalition, including mainly Arab states, is already waging war. And these countries bear at least some responsibility for the plight of Syria's peaceful population. Similarly, the countries that conducted the 2011 military intervention in Libya and contributed to its becoming a failed state -- including the U.S., Canada, Norway and Qatar -- are obligated to help fix the humanitarian disaster they helped create. 

That would mean taking part in a broad international program -- perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency -- to resettle people in participating countries. Then Operation Triton could be much more effective, because the number of migrants making the dangerous Mediterranean voyage would drop at least to its historic level, about 40,000 people a year. The number of deaths would also fall: In the early 2000s, fewer than 500 people a year drowned on the journey -- less than the toll from Sunday's shipwreck alone. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at