AMU Homeland Security Intelligence Opinion

Migrants at Sea: A Growing Humanitarian Crisis

By Dr. Melissa Schnyder
Associate Professor of International Relations at American Public University

Seeking Human Security
In recent years, Europe’s refugee crisis has become an increasingly acute issue in need of a coordinated political response. Political instability to Europe’s south has prompted a surge in the number of asylum-seekers seeking refuge in the European Union. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 398,000 asylum applications were filed across the EU’s 28 member states in 2013, representing a 32 percent increase over the previous year. In its publication Asylum Trends, UNHCR estimated that in 2014 the world’s industrialized countries would witness the highest number of asylum applications in approximately 20 years. Seeking basic human security, migrants and refugees are fleeing areas experiencing extreme poverty, armed conflict, or political and social unrest.

Migrants at Sea
Facilitated by networks of human traffickers and smugglers, more and more migrants are embarking on dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea in an effort to reach Europe. In 2013, three times as many migrants arrived in Italy by sea compared to 2012, and in January 2014, that figure was nearly 10 times what it had been the year prior. sea migrants refugees

Both UNHCR and Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, report that the number of attempts to enter southern European countries surged in early 2014. Although many successfully reach Europe’s shores, the number of fatalities en route to Europe has risen dramatically. Although it is unknown exactly how many migrants have died attempting to cross the dangerous waters en route to Italy, Spain and other southern European destinations, in late 2013 at least 400 migrants drowned in shipwrecks as they attempted to reach Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island and its closest point to North Africa. Incidents like these have led the European Union to increase its sea patrols, signifying what many analysts have called a crisis in dire need of a coordinated response.

Europe is not the only region experiencing this crisis. More recently, news wires reported thousands of Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh to be “lost at sea” off Southeast Asia. In May, the International Organization for Migration believed as many as 8,000 Rohingya migrants to be stranded at sea. Since the Thai government began its crackdown on smugglers who are notorious for holding these migrants for ransom in camps in southern Thailand, smugglers are now reported to be abandoning the Rohingya at sea instead. States in the vicinity have generally not been willing to let them land and seek asylum, and the BBC reported that fisherman have also been instructed not to assist them. After weeks spent in rickety boats with very little food or water, in late May Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to take in thousands of migrants until they can either be resettled in another country or sent back home. However, the issue is far from resolved, as questions remain about where the Rohingya will ultimately be settled, and amid persecution and statelessness at home, more are expected to make the dangerous journey. A United Nations estimate put the number of migrants who fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by sea at about 25,000 during just the first three months of 2015.

In Need of a Coordinated Response
The sharp increase of migrants risking perilous journeys at sea attempting to flee conflict, instability, and persecution has left destination states in Europe and Southeast Asia scrambling to deal with this issue. From a human security perspective, many experts agree that, thus far, the response by states has been woefully inadequate. There is an immediate need to develop a consistent approach, centering on the development of shared guidelines among states in the region for rescue and disembarkation, as well as for determining and meeting protection needs for those seeking refuge. There is also a longer-term need for the international community to take meaningful steps to help stop the flow of refugees; experts have cited prosecuting the ringleaders of smuggling and trafficking operations, in conjunction with providing refugees legal avenues to stay and work on at least a temporary basis, as two recommendations.

In the aftermath of more than 900 migrants having drowned off the coast of Libya in April en route to Europe, the EU is realizing more than ever the need for a coordinated response. Yet, as The New York Times reported, “governments are trying to balance humanitarian responsibilities against budget constraints and widespread public sentiment against immigration.” Many experts agree, however, that more effective measures need to be put in place. In a letter to the EU heads of state on preventing deaths at sea, Human Rights Watch argued that “what is required is a multinational operation with a clear mandate to actively seek out and rescue migrants and asylum seekers in distress at sea, and bring them to safe EU ports, where their claims can be processed in an orderly manner with all their rights respected and protected. The EU should also work quickly to set up safe and orderly methods for people to seek asylum in the EU without having to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.”

In a post 9/11 world, states are more likely to view migration and asylum as security issues, and as a result may be less likely to consider the human security issues involved. This approach can prevent the concept of shared responsibility among states, which invokes a wider sense of responsibility and burden-sharing among the international community to help address the humanitarian crisis of migrants at sea, from being effectively put into practice.

About the Author
Dr. Melissa Schnyder is an associate professor of International Relations at American Public University, where she teaches courses on international organizations, European politics, comparative politics and international relations theory. She researches the role of non-state actors in influencing international political processes and outcomes. Her forthcoming book, Activism, NGOs and the State, examines transnational and domestic networks of organizations in Europe working on behalf of migrants and refugees.

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