In November of last year, Italy ended its migrant search mission, which had been codenamed “Mare Nostrum.” The program was a search-and-rescue endeavor trying to save the lives of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, who primarily come from North Africa. The Italian government decided to forgo the program when they could no longer foot the bill, which was costing almost $12 million per month. The European Union stepped in with a similar program, but it doesn’t have nearly the same sort of reach or funding that the Italian program had.
When Italy first got rid of “Mare Nostrum,” critics said that ending the program put the lives of thousands of migrants at risk. They may have been right: This past week, it is estimated that over 300 migrants drowned while trying to make the journey from Libya to Europe. This brings the total of lives lost in attempts to cross the Mediterranean since the start of 2015 to over 400. This is concerning, considering that only 27 lives were lost over the same period last year.
This discussion fits into a larger, older one regarding nation-states and their responsibilities to refugees, migrants and displaced persons.
According to the 1951 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Convention, states have a responsibility to protect refugees, defined as people who move from their native land under a perceivable threat to life or freedom. The convention has concessions, understanding that refugees will not always be able to follow prescribed immigration protocols, especially under dire situations.
This sounds all well and good, but the vague language in the definition of what it means to be a refugee allows the international community to term the fewest number of people possible as “refugees.” The idea of a perceivable threat to life or freedom can capture a wide range of things but can also be very narrow. Using the most narrow definition, the international community chooses to afford the smallest number of people those rights and privileges afforded to “refugees.”
It is in the best interest of countries to do this, to call only a small number of people “refugees,” because providing services and protection for refugees is difficult and expensive. Furthermore, the process of documenting and supporting refugees takes a lot of manpower and physical living space. To avoid the hassle and expense of providing these things, international bodies label many people who should be labeled as refugees something else.
In the case of the travelers from Libya, they were termed “migrants” and not “refugees.” This is no accident, and it complicates the way in which we understand other nations’ responsibilities to those people. The Libyan migrants were almost certainly leaving their country of origin for fear of their lives and livelihoods: ISIS presence and militia activity make the country extremely unsafe.
Calling the Libyans “migrants” allows for other nation-states to relax standards of protection for those people and prevents any international governing body from stepping in to promote or enforce better treatment. In this specific case, definition (or lack thereof) has allowed Italy to cut this rescue-effort program, saving them almost fifty million dollars already and possibly having allowed for the deaths of the 300 safety-seekers.
The underlying problem here is much deeper and more difficult to ameliorate than political instability in Libya or budgetary constraints in Italy. This instance looks very much like another iteration of valuing certain kinds of lives over others. People trying to escape danger who live in “first-world” nations have many more avenues of support and protection. This is not just a European problem; it is a world problem, something that each of us as human beings has a responsibility to care about. To actually fix things, our understanding of global power structures must be much more realistic. We must empathize with other humans, even those that are seemingly dissimilar from ourselves, more actively than we normally do.
Such a radical change is going to take time, though — more time than we can afford when dealing with crisis situations where inaction is causing people to actively die before our eyes. While we work on decomposing an unfair imbalance of power, we can change the way in which we approach the language of international documents. We can be more inclusive in the way we decide who is eligible for refugee status. Furthermore, we can put monetary concerns more to the side when people’s lives are at stake. Dogmatic nationalism might be a good thing in some situations, but when it privileges the marginal economic security of a nation over the lives of other people, we ought to reexamine our priorities.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.