The ‘Mediterranean Solution’: rescinding the rights of boat people


The ‘Mediterranean Solution’: rescinding the rights of boat people

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Written by: Liz Fekete


In May, a ‘ghost ship’ with eleven petrified corpses washed up in Barbados. The Africans onboard the sea-battered yacht had set sail four months previously from the Cape Verde islands – and had been heading for Europe. As the EU draws on Australia’s ‘Pacific Solution’ to further militarise its sea borders, and enters into new repatriation agreements with North African countries, tragedies like this can only become more commonplace.

For several years, official UNHCR statistics have flagged up a steady reduction in the number of people claiming asylum in the rich industrialised EU countries.[1] Yet the UNHCR also acknowledges that war and widespread human rights abuse, environmental degradation and rapid globalisation are uprooting millions of people across the world. Resource-driven civil wars and internal strife, as well as natural and man-made disasters, are displacing many Africans. Some of these displaced people sail either from Somalia to the Middle East, across the Gulf of Aden, or from Morocco, Libya, Mauritania, Senegal and Cape Verde, to Europe’s southern coastal states. Of those boat people attempting the dangerous maritime journey to Europe, an estimated one third drown in the ‘graveyard’ of the Mediterranean Sea.[2] According to the UNHCR, the human suffering and loss of life that results from these perilous sea crossings represent a major humanitarian crisis.

It is true that the number of Africans (as well as other nationalities who set sail from Africa) seeking to reach southern European states by boat has increased over the last couple of years. Still, the arrival of approximately 10,600 irregular migrants (which includes asylum seekers) on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in 2004, or the arrival of 7,000 boat people to Spain’s Canary Islands in the first five months of 2006, does not constitute an ‘immigration avalanche'[3], a ‘migration tsunami'[4] or a public emergency of epic proportions. Yet this is how it is routinely represented in the media every single day. The fantasy grows that even while asylum numbers decrease across the EU, Europeans face a major invasion from the South. The myth that southern Europe is collapsing under the weight of African migration is taking root and has become the excuse by which the southern European states retract the right to asylum for certain kinds of refugees – boat people from Africa.

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[1] Member states of the European Union received nearly 20 per cent fewer asylum claims in 2004 than in the previous year and 36 per cent fewer claims than in 2001. Most countries are now reporting their lowest annual total for several years.
[2] Michael Pugh, 'Drowning not Waving', in Journal for Refugee Studies (vol. 17, no. 1, 2004), pp.50-69.
[3] The regional government of the Canary Islands called on the EU to set up an emergency fund to deal with the 'humanitarian crisis resulting from the immigration avalanche'. (Expatica News, 23.5.06)
[4] Jean-Marie Le Pen described events in Ceuta and Melilla as a 'migration tsunami'. (Le Monde, 9.10.05).


The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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