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
Profile photo
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.

A note on commenting

Due to recent increased commenting activity we have taken the decision to disable commenting on old blogs. As we are a small office it is simply impossible to fight spam and keep removing comments that don’t comply with our house rules on what is now an archive of over 800 pieces.

We have also decided to take a more proactive role in enforcing our blog house rules on the blogs where comments are open. The rules are there for a good reason and we want to make sure we are consistent and apply them across the board. 

This is not in any shape or form meant to stifle debate, but to make sure that it remains civil and on topic.

Thanks and best regards,

--MRN Team


MRN blogging and comments – Policy and House Rules

Your comments

1. Please be civil– we will remove anything that:

  • Is considered likely to provoke, attack or offend others
  • Is racist, sexist, homophobic, sexually explicit, abusive or otherwise objectionable
  • Contains swear words or other language likely to offend
  • Breaks the law, condones or encourage unlawful activity or which could endanger the safety or well-being of others
  • Impersonates someone else
  • advertises products or services

2. Comments that could damage the reputation of a person or organisation, that risk prejudicing on-going or forthcoming court proceedings or that could place MRN in contravention of its legal and/or regulatory obligations will be removed.

3. Please make comments relevant to the subject of the article. We may remove comments that we consider to be spam or which are unrelated to the article content against which they are posted.

4. Please keep the number of comments you make on a topic reasonable. Too many posts from an individual or small group can discourage other readers from joining the conversation.

5. In exceptional cases we may get a high volume of similar comments on a post. In these cases we may close comments for that post, adding a note letting you know that further comments will not be published.

6. By submitting comments to this site, you warrant that such comments are not defamatory nor infringe any law. You agree to indemnify MRN against all legal fees, damages and other expenses that may be incurred by MRN as a result of your breach of the above warranty.