May Day blog: Migrant ship disasters must signify turning point for European policy

Unions have role to sustain issue on European agendaLampedusa

May Day is an occasion when workers celebrate the achievements of organised labour, highlight grievances and refocus efforts. This year’s international workers’ day, cries for employment and human rights must be accompanied by demands for migrant rights, as desperate people continue to risk their lives trying to reach our shores.

A week of disaster on the Mediterranean in April focused the political spotlight upon an alarming rise in migrant deaths on the fringes of ‘Fortress Europe’.  With up to 900 dead, the catastrophe south of Lampedusa on 19th April represents the worst recorded incident to date. It came within days of two other shipwrecks where over 400 perished, compounding the Mediterranean as the most dangerous border in the world. 

With up to 20,000 similar fatalities in the past two decades these incidents are far from a new phenomenon. In fact, regular and normalised migrant deaths in the Mediterranean have slipped by under the political radar with barely a mention in our newspapers. Recently the volume of lives lost has pushed the issue to the front of the political agenda. As European heads of state convene for emergency meetings, a fundamental change in approach is required to resolve this crisis.

A desire to keep borders secure must not continue to transcend a responsibility to protect those in need. Immediate focus must now be on saving lives at sea. This requires significant commitments from throughout Europe, not just nations on its southernmost borders.

In the aftermath of these disasters much emphasis has been placed on the need to target smugglers who endanger and exploit for profit. Although substantial blame lies with criminal smuggling gangs, that culpability should not mask the fact that there is no security or military solution to this crisis. While desperation to flee from parts of Africa and the Middle East remains so high, security crackdowns on transportation will merely shift pressure to other means of escape.

There is a widespread misconception in Europe that these people are merely economic migrants. In reality a huge regional crisis exists on our southern doorstep and numbers clearly peak during times of civil unrest. People attempting to cross the sea have been displaced from countries suffering war and all its associated traumas. These refugees require international protection. Syrians, Eritreans and Afghans need safe routes (both legally and physically) to reach secure environments while their homelands are in turmoil.

Ultimately, it is in the areas that refugees originate (and pass through) that demand for migration must be tackled. Maximising EU humanitarian assistance for refugees in places adjacent to their countries of origin, as well as transit countries, would help reduce the desire to flee further afield. International development budgets and stability-driven foreign policies targeting vulnerable parts of the world should be top priority for European decision-makers concerned about pressure on their borders.

International solidarity is a mainstay of trade unionism. It is vital that we keep campaigning for social justice, equality and decent work across the world not just in our domestic environments. We need migration-related policies built on solidarity and equal rights, not fear of our fellow world citizens. As trade unionists we have a responsibility to highlight injustice and advocate forward-looking responses.  With climate change anticipated to intensify forced migration in the coming years, progressive solutions are not just a moral requirement. They are a practical necessity.

Keivan Jackson