The last shipwreck of a migrant boat near Greece questions, once again, the responsibilities between the two shores in the Mediterranean

Beatrice Ala

On one hand, 750 men, women and children on the boat that capsized on the 14th of June off the Greek coast, in the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, while trying to reach Italy. On the other hand, the continuous shifting of responsibility between Greece, Libya, Italy, Tunisia and the EU.

PIRAEUS, GREECE – JUNE 20: Communist’s Party Youth throws lifebuoys into the sea as a symbolic demonstration for refugee rights after a fishing boat carrying migrants trying to reach Italy sank, for the World Refugee Day in Piraeus, Greece on June 20, 2023. (Photo by Kostis Ntantamis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The shipwreck of the boat near Greece is only the latest in a long series of tragedies in the Mediterranean. Recent tolls report than more than 80 have died, while an estimated 500 more people are missing and feared to be dead. The exact circumstances of the vessel sinking are still unclear: Greek authorities affirm that the boat repeatedly refused help saying they were headed to Italy, but several calls were made to alert that the boat was in distress. After years of boats crossing the Mediterranean, each shipwreck recalls similar dynamics, with coastal states at trial and responsibilities shifting between coastal guards, smugglers and controversial European regulations.

Irregular migration occurring from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb to Europe has continuously been defined as a security problem for countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. While migration is still a matter of policies and deals between the powers of the two shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the death tolls rise: according to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,200 people drowned in the Mediterranean in 2022, and the death toll rises to almost 25,000 since 2014. According to the data provided by the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), between 2000 and 2017, more than 33,000 people have died while crossing the Mediterranean, making it by far the world’s most lethal border area. How have European policies been addressing the problem and is the situation really changing?

Just lately, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has met with Tunisian President Kais Saied to “address the migration crisis in an integrated manner”, linking the surveillance of maritime borders to economic aid from the European Union. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU is in fact considering providing more than one billion euros in aid for Tunisia to rescue state finances and deal with a migration crisis: a further €105m will be funneled into a new partnership with Tunisia to stem migration and people-smuggling to Europe. The Tunisian President has told visiting Premier Giorgia Meloni that Tunisia would say no to “unacceptable diktats” from the International Monetary Fund that would interfere with the State’s sovereignty. Saied had previously called for urgent action to halt the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into the country, condemning the supposed attempt of waves of “illegal immigration” to “alter the demographic structure of Tunisia”. But for Europe, maintaining a strong Tunisian State is vital to control the migration flows. 

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied shakes hands with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Tunis, Tunisia on 11 June 2023 (Reuters)

Italy has also tried to consolidate relations with both leaders in Libya, with Giorgia Meloni going to Tripoli in January to meet the Prime Minister of the National Unity Government Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, while last May, General Khalifa Haftar, who has been in effective control of the eastern region of Cyrenaica for years, visited Rome. In February 2017, the Italian government Gentiloni had signed a memorandum with Tripoli to manage irregular migration, counter human trafficking and improve border security. Under the agreement, Italy expanded its support to the Libyan coastguard, offering financial resources and the technical expertise to improve its capacity to patrol and intercept migrants. The memorandum was automatically renewed in February 2023, while PM Meloni assured further logistical support to the Libyan coastguard for interceptions at sea.

The EU is also moving as a whole organization to tackle this issue, and is doing so by reaching out to countries in the southern shore of the Mediterranean and placing on them the responsibility to stop migrants on their side of the sea. EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell pledged new funds to Egypt on Monday to tackle the issue of migration and refugees, saying the European Union would give Cairo 20 million euros “to help address this new wave of Sudanese refugees on your southern border”, without specifying how that money would be spent. 

But things are not so different on the other side of the Mediterranean. This example is just the last of well-established practices of externalization of borders and bilateral agreements with transit states, where migration is used as a leverage political tool by both the UE and the neighboring countries: in 2016 the EU concluded a deal with Turkey, with the Turkish government agreeing to take back refugees in exchange for major financial assistance and the promise to abolish EU visas for Turkish citizens.

Libya’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah receives his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni, in the capital Tripoli, on January 28, 2023. – Meloni arrived in the Libyan capital Tripoli today to discuss energy amid Europe’s crisis, as well as the contentious issue of migration, Libyan state media reported. (Photo by Mahmud Turkia / AFP) (Photo by MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)

Gateway countries in North Africa -especially Libya and Tunisia- are often counterbalancing foreign relations with the EU and domestic dissent, and the migration dossier is the litmus test. EU border countries rely on local governments to control the fluxes and to keep unwanted migrants within the borders of North African countries; politicians on the verge of civil wars rely on Europe’s recognition to stay where they are. It is a game within political elites: generous fluxes of money and political acknowledgment offered by European institutions are mirrored with efforts by governments on the other side of the Mediterranean, to build fences to keep migrants on their side to protect the fortress of Europe. As Giorgia Meloni meaningfully said in Tunis: “Today Tunisia is in difficulty; if the Tunisian government goes down, we will experience an absolutely worrying scenario”.

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The last shipwreck of a m…

by Beatrice Ala time to read: 4 min