Scores of refugees have died attempting to reach European territory. Now, a group of European journalists has found that the EU's lure claims a higher number of casualties than previously thought.
In October 2013, 360 migrants drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. In February of this year, 15 people died attempting to swim to the Spanish enclave Ceuta in Marocco. It is usually prominent cases like these that draw public attention to the refugee tragedies that take place on the EU's borders.
But the tragedies don't stop happening when no one is looking. There is hardly any information or any reliable data about how many people die on their way to Europe in an overcrowded refugee boat on the Mediterranean Sea or in an attempt to cross one of the border fences, which are supposed to keep migrants out of Spanish enclaves in Africa. In order to provide such numbers, a group of journalists from various European countries has now attempted to collate data from all the known cases.
One source of the information in the so-called Migrant Files is UNITED for Intercultural Action, a network of 560 international NGOs. "When we first started we thought our work would mainly be to check the data and aggregate it," explained French journalist Nicolas Kayser-Bril.
"And when we put the two databases together we realized that many of the events were in one but not in the other, which meant that the actual number of casualties was much higher than what any one of these databases was claiming," he said, explaining that they then also began to use data from other public sources, including newspaper reports.
The research showed that over 23,000 refugees had died or gone missing since the beginning of the century, which is over 5,000 more victims than had been previously assumed.
But according to the EU Commission, these numbers aren't new. "As for the figures, frankly I don't see any discrepancy or difference with the figures that we have consistently been estimating," said Michele Cercone, the spokesperson for the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström. According to Cercone, the EU had always pegged the number of migrant deaths to be around 20,000.
But Kayser-Bril disagrees. "We have been in touch with a number of officials at the EU level but also at the national level - and we know for a fact that no one has any idea of the number of people who died." Bril thinks that the number of victims is actually likely to be even higher than the number stated in the "Migrant Files," since so many cases have gone undocumented.
Contradictory EU policies
EU Commissioner Malmström may not see any new urgency in the numbers provided by the new research in the "Migrant Files," but her spokesperson Michele Cercone said that when it comes to EU migration policy these figures do confirm a need to take action.
"On the one hand, [that means opening] more channels for regular migration, to make sure that member states operate more resettlements in order to avoid that people who are in need of protection can avoid putting their life in the hands of debt merchants, who organize these deadly journeys," says Cercone. "And also, that we cooperate with the countries of origin and transit in order to dismantle the networks of criminals and smugglers who are behind these flows and who are often behind these tragedies," he explained. However, he also emphasized that the decision over whether to provide permanent asylum to refugees cannot be taken by the European Commission, but rests with each individual member state.
The EU's refugee policy has been contradictory for a long time. On the one hand, the EU has repeatedly flagged the importance of protecting the lives of refugees. On the other hand, individual member states are usually interested in sealing themselves off from refugees trying to cross their borders as effectively as possible. One of the newest technologies for sealing EU borders is the "Eurosur" system, in which surveillance drones or satellite systems ensure that migrants can't cross into European territory in the first place. That's why the EU has often been referred to as "Fortress Europe."
Saving refugees or saving the EU from them?
The same contradiction is also evident in the official mission of the European Union border agency Frontex: on the one hand the agency is supposed to protect Europe's coast against migrants, while also helping to save refugees in distress at sea.
"In the end, Frontex's mission is to organize keeping migrants out," says Ska Keller, the German Green party's member of the European Parliament. "If we really want to save people, then we have to create legal ways for migrants to come to Europe."
Geert Ates from UNITED for Intercultural Action agrees. "The refugees will always come, no matter what routes they use. But the question is, how dangerous the route is, and how many people die taking it."
Ates is hardly hopeful that the EU will change its refugee policy, however, he says: "The most important thing for them is to seal off the borders. If we want to change something, we have to do it on a national level, in the member states."
The member states were rather reserved about the issue at the EU-Africa summit, which was held at the beginning of April. All the African and EU heads of state agreed that refugee tragedies like the one in Lampedusa must be prevented in the future. But no concrete statements were made on how many refugees the individual EU states would provide asylum to in future.