Appealing but Misleading: Jean-Claude Juncker Reverses Reality


“We have drastically reduced the loss of life in the Mediterranean,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. This sounds like a glamorous sentence asserting that the European institution held up its end of the bargain to reduce enormous migrant flows. This was the most remarkable statement that Juncker underlined in his State of the Union speech. After listening to the whole speech, I looked up the word in the dictionary. The word drastic means “severe and sudden or having very noticeable effects.” Let’s make it easier: fewer migrants have lost their lives in the Mediterranean. So, we should probably be glad. And we don’t need graphs to do so, just a few figures: in 2015, 3,771 migrants died in the sea. In 2016, 5,143. And in 2017 (until now), 2,550 people have drowned.


A Humanitarian Crisis Beyond Numbers: What Juncker Misses


Firstly, we don’t know exactly how many people drown in the Mediterranean. We just mention figures given by officials. But by just using figures, aren’t we overlooking the fact that every individual is of equal importance? Even if there were only a dozen victims every year, authorities should deal with the root of the problem.


Another problem with the obsession with figures is that it may prevent us from recognizing the daunting amount of human rights abuses occurring across European borders. The boastful speeches of political leaders give very little space to the disastrous conditions of migrants in many places within Europe, especially on the Greek islands. Yet, people who flee from ongoing conflicts face awful conditions in temporary camps. So when Juncker speaks of a “drastic reduction” it sounds like good news, and nobody seems to be willing to deal with the situation of those who remain alive.


Beyond this, the issues the European Union (EU) needs to address are multiple. Current data shows that the relocation of migrants is still the most challenging problem facing the EU. The lack of an effective relocation scheme continues to threaten cooperation between EU member states. As of September 16, 2017 EU Member States pledged 70,081 relocations but they only accepted 28,191 refugees.


On the other side, there is a legal battle over the relocation scheme. The Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic) rejected the plan. Moreover, the Czech Republic and Poland completely halted accepting any refugees. It seems that the burden is far from being equally shared between all EU members.


Italy. Photo Guiseppe Murabito


The Libyan issue


The crisis in Libya is far from being addressed as well. A recent Oxfam report revealed the terrible conditions of the country. Interviewed in Sicily, 74 per cent of migrants coming from Libya claimed they witnessed the murder and/or torture of a travelling companion. Eight-four per cent said they themselves suffered inhuman or degrading treatment, extreme violence or torture. Eighty per cent declared they were regularly denied food and water during their stay in the North African country. And finally, 70 per cent said they were tied up!


We must urgently improve migrants’ living conditions in Libya. I am appalled by the inhumane conditions in detention or reception centres. Europe has a collective responsibility, and the Commission will work in concert with the United Nations to put an end to this scandalous situation that cannot be made to last,” said Juncker. However, what is EU really doing about this issue?


Over the last few years, the EU has suggested lots of “roadmaps” to manage the situation, including partnerships with the UN-backed Tripoli government. Libya has been supported through direct financial aid and equipment. EU member states aimed to strengthen the operational capacity of the Libyan Coastguard in order to increase the number of migrants intercepted while crossing the Mediterranean.


Nevertheless, the current picture of Libya shows how these ineffective measures have made the problem trickier. The European Council held an informal summit in February 2017 to further address measures curbing the flow of migrants. During this summit, the council decided to implement an emergency fund dedicated to cutting migration flows.


Coincidentally, right before the summit, Italy and Libya signed a bilateral agreement in Rome. This agreement aims to buttress the Libyan Coastguard’s efforts to slow the rise of irregular migration. In other words, Libyan authorities will be permitted to conduct maritime operations. These operations involve forcing boats to return to Libya. There is strong evidence to suggest that human rights violations take place in the process.


There are several concerns regarding the capacity and competence of Libyan authorities who are now expected to cooperate with European rescue missions. In August 2016, gunmen attacked a charity-funded boat rescuing refugees, shooting at aid workers before boarding the vessel.


In October 2016, Sea-Watch, a German non-profit organization announced that more than 20 migrants had been beaten by armed men during a rescue operation. These men were coming from a vessel with the insignia of the Libyan Coastguard. They even attempted to detach the motor.




In 2016, Sea-Watch also made a very clear statement about its position regarding the training of the Libyan Coastguard: “Europe must decide between human rights and resistance to migration. Any support for the so-called Libyan Coastguard should be stopped until it can be guaranteed that the units in question orient their behavior in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Axel Grafmanns, CEO of Sea-Watch. “Everyone has the right to leave their country. Deportation to Libya is not only a humanitarian disaster but also simply illegal, and must not be tolerated by the EU. Let alone funded by it.”  


In return, after a run-in on September 27 with a German vessel during which a warning shot was fired, the Libyan Coastguard warned it will seize the boats of any non-government organizations (NGO) on rescue missions if they enter its waters without permission. “These NGOs must respect our authority and our sovereignty. Our patience has reached its limit,” said Libyan Navy Spokesman General Ayub Kacem.


If Juncker is appalled by the “migrants’ inhumane conditions in Libya,” perhaps the EU should be more rigorous in choosing its partners. Otherwise, it will cause serious damage to its image in the long run. Damage for which a few good-looking figures won’t be able to compensate.


This article is the result of a partnership with the website Bosphorus Migration.

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  • Mehmet Enes Beşer

    Mehmet is the founder and executive director of Bosphorus Migration Studies, an independent think tank focusing on the European migration crisis. Mehmet Enes Beşer has a sociology BA degree (Boğaziçi University) and also studied at Bielefeld University.

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