FEBRUARY 25, 2015
On the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa stands a graveyard filled with simple wooden crosses. We don’t know the names and stories of those buried there, except that they perished at sea trying to reach Europe, fleeing conflict in Syria, human-rights abuses in Somalia and Eritrea, poverty in West Africa.
Over the last decade, an estimated 20,000 people have died attempting to make the crossing. Last year was the deadliest on record, with more than 3,500 drowning or succumbing to hunger, thirst, or cold.
The number of deaths would have been far higher had it not been for the efforts of the Italian navy. After a deadly shipwreck in October of 2013 off the coast of Lampedusa, in which more than 350 people drowned—an incident the pope described as a moral failure—Italy deployed its navy in a major rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, Latin for “our sea.” The operation extended almost to the coast of Libya, from where many of the rickety boats embark. They rescued tens of thousands of people.
The Italian government has repeatedly asked member states of the European Union to share responsibility for rescue efforts. The EU is supposed to have a common asylum policy. But there was no appetite in Europe’s capitals for a pan-European effort, in part because of concerns that Mare Nostrum was acting as a pull factor. Instead, European governments collectively resolved to focus on deterring departures, combating the smuggling that makes these crossings possible, and addressing the “root causes” of migration in countries of origin.