The capsizing of a vessel holding roughly 700 migrants bound for Italy from Libya marks the single largest loss of life since 2011, when the current wave of crossings began. Unfortunately, it is neither the first nor last tragedy of its kind. This international humanitarian crisis will intensify in coming days and months.
With calmer waters and warmer weather approaching, more overcrowded and unseaworthy boats will inevitably arrive on Italy's shores. Nevertheless, this is not just an Italian problem, but rather a collective challenge requiring concerted management, efforts and solutions at the European level, in cooperation and collaboration with the states of North Africa.
This crisis possesses simultaneously moving components converging into a perfect storm. They include, but are not limited to, deep economic crisis in Europe, particularly in its southern flank, and its continuing political fallout and the rise of populist, anti-immigration parties threatening the traditional, mainstream establishments.
Furthermore, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since 2011, particularly in Libya and Syria, continue to fuel migration into Europe together with political turmoil and economic adversities in sub-Saharan Africa.
What drives individuals, and families, to endure a treacherous 300-mile journey on flimsy vessels? Their willingness to risk everything is a testament of their desperation. From their perspective, they have nothing to lose.
After a similar tragedy claimed 300 lives off the coast of Sicily in October 2013, Italy launched Operation Mare Nostrum. The Italian navy and air force conducted search-and-rescue missions that extended into Libyan waters at a cost of nearly $10 million per month. After salvaging over 100,000 migrants, the operation was terminated in October 2014 due largely to budgetary constraints and political pressure from other EU member states claiming it was encouraging further migration.
Since then, Operation Triton was created as a replacement for roughly $3 million per month. It focuses largely on border protection and operates closer to the Italian coast with a limited search-and-rescue capability. Under the new operation, migrant deaths have increased exponentially.
Despite its own severe economic hardships and limited resources at home, Italy deserves its fair share of credit in the international humanitarian sphere. In 2014, it absorbed 170,000 migrants. In one recent week in April 2014, Italy took in nearly 10,000. Beyond the current crisis, Italy also remains the leading Western contributor to United Nations peacekeeping operations and many of its NGO's are renowned for their effectiveness globally. Furthermore, ordinary Italians were leading charitable contributors during the Balkan wars of the 1990's. However, even such generosity has its limits which underscores the need for greater European burden-sharing. It remains essential to effective management of the current crisis. Although any attempt to reactivate Operation Mare Nostrum would prove politically controversial, its current replacement Operation Triton requires strengthening. EU member states should play a more proactive role in supplying naval assets, contributing resources and hosting migrants if needed.
Defusing the crisis skillfully will also require the increased assistance, cooperation and collaboration of North African countries, including Egypt and Tunisia. Most of all, mounting diplomatic pressure is needed for an agreement between rival governments to end fighting in Libya's 11-month civil war. The U.N.-brokered negotiations in Morocco have dragged on for too long.
With over 1,700 km of mostly open, unguarded shores, instability in Libya provides human smugglers with free rein to operate. What currently remains of Libya's coast guard to confront the crisis is less than a handful of operational vessels. The restoration of basic order to Libya, particularly to its land and maritime borders, is paramount to dealing with this humanitarian tragedy systematically.
Finally, the relentless pursuit and prosecution of smugglers with severe sentences is crucial. Although they cannot be completely stopped, authorities must deter, contain and downgrade their ability to operate to the maximum extent possible.