Interview – Dr Carol Bohmer on the Mediterranean migrant crisis

By Joana Cook:

An inflatable hard bottom craft carrying some 87 would be immigrant maily from Somalia is pictured 26 miles from Lampedusa on June 15, 2008. AFP PHOTO/MAURICIO ESSE (Noborder CC 2.0)
An inflatable hard-bottom craft carrying some 87 migrants is pictured 26 miles from Lampedusa in June 2008. AFP PHOTO/MAURICIO ESSE (Noborder CC 2.0)

On Monday, yet another tragic story broke of a ship sinking off the coast of Libya en route to Europe. This time, however, there were a potential 900 fatalities – if confirmed this would represent the highest number in any single case yet. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) fears that 30,000 sea crossings of this sort could occur in 2015 – likely rife with continuing tragedies. EU Foreign Ministers are currently in Luxembourg discussing the issue and what response may be required to both manage criminal elements of this related to human smuggling, and preventing the increasing number of tragedies.

Strife talked to Dr. Carol Bohmer, Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, about those trying to reach Europe and how to address the current crisis.


There seems to be a significant increase in the number of refugees trying to reach Europe from North Africa. Has there simply been more media coverage of this, or are the rates of these incidents significantly increasing?

The number of refugees drowning en route to Europe has increased exponentially over the last couple of years. So far this year, it is estimated that at least 1600 migrants have died, a 30-fold increase over the same period last year. There have been several incidents in the last couple of weeks, the latest one involving an estimated 800 or more deaths. Because of the magnitude of this tragedy, the media coverage has been intense.

Part of the media coverage has to do with the political implications of these disasters. Last October, Mare Nostrum, a programme of search and rescue, credited with saving 100,000 lives last year, was stopped. Several governments, including the British government, decided to end the operation because they believed that it encouraged migrants to flee to Europe. Not providing rescue was supposed to deter these desperate migrants from attempting the journey. These latest events have put the lie to the effectiveness of this deterrence argument.

Where do these refugees come from? What are the demographics?

The refugees come from places where there is war, civil strife and persecution. Not surprisingly, many come from Syria, Eritrea, South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Others come from countries in the throes of unrest or economic stagnation. It is difficult to get exact numbers when the authorities do not even know how many have drowned, let alone where they came from. There is evidence that most of them are young with a number of children under 18, some as young as 10 or 12. It is unclear how many women are involved. There is also some evidence that as many as one million Syrians and Sub-Saharan Africans are waiting in Libya to cross into Europe.

What is likely to happen to these refugees if they reach Europe?

It should first be said that while many of the migrants are fleeing persecution, some of them are economic migrants looking for a better life. Even those fleeing the war and chaos of the Middle East do not all fit into the narrow framework of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which, with the follow up 1967 Protocol, provides the definition of refugee in the law.

It is very difficult to follow the path of those migrants and asylum seekers who make it to Europe. Many of them spend long periods of time in reception centres, waiting to be processed as refugees. Return to their countries of origin is extremely difficult, for both practical reasons and because of the international legal principle of “non-refoulement,” which forbids the return of someone to their country of origin if they have reason to fear persecution.   Those who are granted asylum (and even those who aren’t) can move away from reception centres, to other parts of Italy or other parts of Europe, and no doubt some of them do, though statistics on this are hard to come by. Formal resettlement programmes appear to be rather limited, especially given Italy’s current financial difficulties.

What are some of the broader political implications (positive or negative) for increasing numbers of refugees travelling to Europe? 

The increasing numbers of migrants travelling to Europe are grist for the mill for the far right political parties in many EU counties. The potential power of those parties affects the way those currently in power deal with the issue, focusing on punitive measures rather than more measured efforts as solutions. They are therefore more likely to respond, as Philip Hammond did this week, by supporting efforts to catch traffickers, rather than restart Mare Nostrum to prevent the migrants from drowning at sea.

It is possible that these tragedies will spur the EU to promulgate unified policies to deal with the crisis, and also to provide funding to do so. The Italian government, as well as others who receive migrants from the Mediterranean, argue that they are being forced to accept an unfair share of the burden with insufficient financial support from the rest of the EU.

Migration has the benefit of providing young workers in the EU countries that have ageing populations; the disadvantage of this type of irregular, usually unskilled, migration is that it may not provide the type of workers needed. It also has the disadvantage of indicating a lack of control of borders by those in power. 

For those departing from conflict areas is there any evidence that these could be former combatants, or what security risks could be posed?

I don’t know of any evidence that some migrants are former combatants, but there is no reason to suppose they are not. The security risks are well known, and involve possible terrorist acts, though it is hard to imagine terrorists resorting to leaky boats as a means of transport to the EU so they can commit acts of terrorism once there.

In your opinion, how should the international community respond to these cases? What steps do you believe could be taken to avoid further tragedies?

The international community should restart Mare Nostrum. It is painfully clear that this deterrence does not work, given that the number of people risking crossing the Mediterranean have increased so markedly since Mare Nostrum was abandoned. It is inhumane not to try to save the lives of those who cross to Europe in a futile attempt to reduce the numbers. The reason that people are coming in increased numbers has to do with the situation in the places they are fleeing. Until the various crises are resolved we can expect migrant numbers to remain high. International efforts to this end could have some effect on the number of refugees who flee.

Given that not all the migrants are refugees but rather those seeking a better life than the barren and economically disastrous one in their places of origin, efforts to improve the economic outlook in those countries would also reduce the incentive for migrants to try to reach Europe.

Going after the traffickers would have some effect, but would not stop the transit of desperate people such as have been risking their lives recently. The desperation is too great and the rewards for the traffickers who are not caught are too high to deter them.

Dr. Carol Bohmer is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies, and is a Visiting Associate Professor at Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, USA. She is also the author of numerous books and publications including “The Politics of Invisibility and the Stigmatized Vernacular: The Case of Political Asylum Seekers” with Amy Shuman (forthcoming), and “Rejecting Refugees: Asylum in the US and the UK in the 21st Century”, with Amy Shuman” (2007).

Interview conducted by Joana Cook, Strife’s Editor-in-Chief.

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