Tragedy off coast of Italy reminds Europe of its need to revisit asylum and migration measures

Migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa in August 2007.
Migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa in August 2007.
The recent tragedy off Italy in which over 300 people may have died after a boat carrying African migrants sank, underlines the need for the European Union and its Member States to revisit current measures to combat irregular migration.

It also points to the need to address the issue not only from a migration perspective but from all relevant policy angles. At the same time, all Member States must pull together to offer greater support to those countries most affected by arrivals.

"Time and time again migrants pay the ultimate price for their search for a better life," said FRA Director Morten Kjaerum. "We need to act now to find appropriate solutions that will balance the needs of border control with the needs and rights of migrants."

Fishermen and others who rescue migrants at sea should not be penalised for rescuing migrants in an irregular situation. Migrants interviewed by FRA for a report on fundamental rights at Europe's southern sea borders recounted experiences of fishing vessels ignoring them. Some fishermen said that they usually avoided vessels in distress with migrants at sea. They tended not to report anything to the authorities, although they may give migrants food and water. Fishermen are often concerned that if they assist migrants they may find themselves involved in long bureaucratic legal procedures or be prosecuted for aiding illegal immigration.

To avoid this, fundamental rights guidance should be provided to Member States on how to implement the duty to punish those who help migrants cross the border in an irregular manner, as covered by EU law. This will help ensure that those who act on humanitarian grounds are not targeted. This includes rescuing people in distress or at risk of drowning at sea as tragically happened off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on 3 October.

In addition, migrants should not risk criminal sanctions for irregularly crossing a border. More than half of the EU Member States have criminalised irregular entry and/or stay by law. Migrants who have irregularly entered or stayed in the country can be punished, and even imprisoned, in two thirds of EU Member States. In other countries it is only an administrative offence. Today, criminal law often targets the migrant. The focus should shift. Efforts need to be made to tackle the root causes that drive migrants to embark on such dangerous trips.