European coast guard and naval forces along with merchant vessels were again involved in a rescue of migrants whose ship capsized off the Italian coast Wednesday in the highest-profile migrant tragedy since several hundred people died after their overcrowded fishing vessel capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa in April. Since then, hundreds of migrants have had to be rescued nearly every month. Wednesday's shipwreck, which involved an estimated 600 migrants, highlights the challenge to Europe of immigration fostered by the instability plaguing much of Europe's southern periphery.
Syrian refugees along with sub-Saharan and East Africans form the bulk of asylum seekers risking lives and often paying large sums — several thousand dollars per person is not unheard of — for the chance to reach Europe. Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Egyptian ports have all served as departure points for these migrants, although war and lawlessness mean the largest number of asylum seekers have departed from Libyan ports. Reflecting the profitability of the trade, fish reportedly has become more expensive in Libya and elsewhere in North Africa; prices presumably rose because significant numbers of locals stopped fishing so they could lease or sell their vessels to human traffickers. Also reflecting the profitability of human smuggling, Libya has seen relatively few attempted kidnappings for ransom compared with Syria, Iraq and northern Mali despite the proliferation of jihadist and militant groups in Libya.
Recent disputes over terms of a U.N.-brokered peace deal have led Libyan authorities, especially in and around Tripoli, to largely turn a blind eye to migrant outflows as they continue difficult negotiations with the United Nations and a rival government in Tobruk over an eventual power-sharing agreement. The European Union has sought cooperation from Libyan authorities in detaining migrants before they were able to pile into fishing boats and go out to sea. But European posturing, including threats of military action, have elicited strong condemnation from Libya's internationally recognized government.
Europe's leadership in fact has few good choices to help remedy the situation. Italy has made renewed threats of military action against the human traffickers who have set up profitable operations in largely lawless Libya. But strikes would further destabilize Libya and unravel a monthslong U.N.-brokered peace process. They would not address the broader issues in play driving migration to Europe, and military action risks increasing the number of asylum seekers in the short term. This is because European strikes would have to partially focus on destroying port infrastructure and fishing fleets, inevitably involving casualties among migrants — who would accordingly have even more incentive to leave Libya for Europe. And finally, strikes on Libya would merely redirect migrants to neighboring countries, where they could embark for Europe.
Once in Europe, the presence of migrants has caused much domestic turmoil. The rush of migrants seeking to enter the United Kingdom from France, and growing migrant shanty towns near the Channel Tunnel and the port of Calais, have dominated headlines this summer. Meanwhile, European leaders are left seriously reconsidering the Schengen agreement's policy of open internal European borders. Rising far-right and Eurosceptic political sentiments in the wake of economic austerity and voter frustration with establishment policies have only compounded these incidents. This has left European governments with the unenviable choice of turning a blind eye to humanitarian disasters off their Mediterranean shores or assisting migrants and in turn empowering anti-immigrant forces such as France's opposition National Front.
Ultimately, there are few options for Europe to address its Mediterranean migrant problems in the short term. And as European leaders continue to seek an elusive long-term solution, migrants will continue to pour out of North African fishing ports.