Migration Pulse

What Does Being Human Mean? The EU, Migration and the Mediterranean Tragedy

A recent Council of Europe report on the deaths of 63 migrants attempting to cross the Meditteranean Sea in May 2011 highlights a tragic yet all too common occurrence at this very dangerous entry point. It also draws attention to a deep-rooted contradiction in the EU’s commitment to human rights.
April 10, 2012
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Katherine E. Tonkiss

Katherine recently completed her PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham. Her research concerns post-national citizenship and identity, the ethics of migration control, and the migration and citizenship regimes of the EU. She has written a number of articles on these subjects which are forthcoming in scholarly journals; and in addition to this research teaches core modules in politics at the University of Birmingham.

In May 2011, the Guardian newspaper exposed events which had led to the deaths of 63 migrants through thirst, starvation and exposure to storms in the Mediterranean Sea.  Despite sightings by military and other boats sailing nearby and contact with coastguards, the migrants were not rescued until the nine survivors washed up on the Libyan coast over two weeks later.

Left to Die

A recently published Council of Europe report on this tragedy revealed a multitude of failings by both NATO and European authorities.  Tineke Strik, the report’s author, highlighted the ways in which these authorities failed to fulfil their commitments to fundamental human rights.  She commented,

we can talk as much as we want about human rights and the importance of complying with international obligations, but if at the same time we just leave people to die – perhaps because we don’t know their identity or because they come from Africa – it exposes how meaningless those words are.

In terms of the European Union, the report recommends that member states should develop a binding protocol of responsibility sharing for migration in the Mediterranean region.  However, Strik’s words concerning human rights failings have particular resonance for the EU’s approach to migration more generally.

EU Migration and Human Rights: Double Standards

The EU is committed to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of nationality, however this only applies to EU citizens.  In essence, this means that many of the EU’s commitments to human rights, particularly in relation to migrants, stop at its external borders.  Indeed, a hardening of the EU’s borders continues to progress, reflecting the increasing gap between the rights of EU migrants and the rights of those just across the border.

The Council of Europe report’s suggestion that numerous authorities failed to meet their own human rights standards suggests an understanding of human rights as applying to all human beings regardless of citizenship status.  However, the EU’s own commitment to human rights is somewhat exclusive to its own citizens, and has been seen to contrast with the its treatment of potential migrants as well as with the strict limitation of its free movement regime to existing EU citizens.

The boat tragedy highlights the extent to which it is problematic to claim a commitment to core human rights, but to then limit that commitment to only those within certain boundaries.  It begs the question of what ‘being human’ is actually taken to mean. 

Does being human mean being an EU citizen? If not, then should the EU not be paying far more attention to the core rights of these migrants more generally, and taking steps to avoid future tragedies? These are important considerations as authorities take forward the recommendations of the report.