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EU holds an emergency summit on the Mediterranean migrant crisis

Italian Navy / Massimo Sestini

The media spotlight is shining intensely on the crisis of migrants dying on people-smuggling boats in the Mediterranean Sea. And for good reason. So far this year, 1750 people have died attempting to cross from North Africa and the Middle East, to Europe. In one week alone, around 10,000 migrants were rescued from boats that were attempting to cross from Libya to Italy. The quantity of deaths is a drastic increase from 2014.

So the media spotlight is shining on this issue for very good reason.

In response to the crisis, the EU is in discussions in Brussels, hoping to come up with an effective course of action. During 2013 and 2014 Italy operated a sea patrol service that routinely found and rescued boats from the middle of the Mediterranean, but this was stopped in December 2014 because the EU wouldn’t fund it.

Since then, a scaled back coast patrol service has operated within 30 miles of the European coast, with less of a focus on heading out to sea and rescuing vessels. This change has been one explanation for why the rate of deaths has increased sharply. The ongoing political and security problems in places like Syria, Libya, and Egypt are also making people desperate enough to pay for the dangerous journey.

The EU might announce an improved plan to patrol further out into the Mediterranean, and, by doing so, save the lives of people on overloaded, creaky boats that are destined to sink. That would be a very welcome decision. The EU might also announce a compassionate plan to resettle the tens of thousands of migrants whose boats have reached European shores in the past year. That would also be a very welcome decision.

But I just can’t help but feel that we’re partially missing the point here.

The best boat patrol service in the universe isn’t really a solution. It might help people get OFF the boats they’re on, but it doesn’t address why people are getting on the boats in the first place. If we want to make a meaningful, enduring response to this crisis, we need to be dealing with the causes of it.

Extreme poverty and conflict are things that international aid works to change. Programs to vaccinate kids, keep mothers healthy, and provide sanitation help to create healthy, stable families. Improving school attendance and quality gives generations of young people the skills to contribute to and grow their local economies. Programs to develop the skills and structures of local governance will help leaders to better cater to the needs of their people.

Not every single one of these programs are perfect successes, and some droughts, epidemics, or conflicts are much harder to foresee and control than others. This means that really, there will always be some people that fall on desperately hard times. But by doing everything we can in the area of international aid and development, countries like the UK, US, and Germany can make a major difference to millions of lives, so that they never feel so desperate that they need to pay a criminal to pack them onto a dangerous boat.

So, while everyone talks about rapid responses this week, and it’s very important that boatloads of people stop drowning in the Mediterranean Sea as soon as possible, I hope that part of the focus can remain on stabilising the countries that the migrants are originating from, and helping them to build livelihoods in these countries that are dignified and safe. That’s the enduring answer.