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The tragic death of hundreds of migrants off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, earlier this month prompted an unprecedented wave of compassion among European leaders at both the national and EU level. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, visited the small island to deplore the humanitarian disaster which the Mediterranean Sea has now become. Prime Minister Letta declared that the victims of the incident would be given an official state funeral. Instead, the dead were buried quietly in various cemeteries around Sicily. The political rhetoric of empathy quickly became a disguised policy debate about how to make sure more migrants are caught red handed entering Europe illegally.

In the aftermath of the incident, MEPs approved a new border surveillance system called Eurosur and the European Commission pushed member states to strengthen Frontex, the EU border protection agency. These measures were justified with the goal of rescuing more shipwrecked migrants, but a closer look at Eurosur and Frontex reveals that their legal basis emphasizes fighting irregular migration – not saving lives at sea. Furthermore, EU migration control programs in third countries, such as the EU Border Assistance Mission (Eubam) in Libya, seek to prevent migrants from ever reaching the Mediterranean.

A look at recent developments in the defense and surveillance industries provides further insight into EU politicians’ intentions. Indra Sistemas, a Spanish defense contractor, recently received over 27 million Euros from the EU to develop a system to monitor irregular migration and combat related crime and goods smuggling. Austria-based Diamond Airborne Sensing is being considered by Frontex and individual member states as a potential supplier of so-called optionally piloted aircraft (OPA) that use sophisticated remote sensors to locate migrants’ vessels far out at sea.

As European leaders discuss how to spend millions of Euros on expensive maritime surveillance equipment, desperate migrants in North Africa await their turn to attempt the crossing just as they did before the Lampedusa shipwreck. The calls for stronger border patrols will certainly not stop them. In fact, they may be tempted to risk their lives even further by jumping overboard at first sight of a Coast Guard ship. To a migrant fleeing misery at home and in transit countries, the risk of drowning may well be worth taking if it makes the difference between reaching Europe as a shipwreck survivor and being turned back as a criminal.

By Marco Funk

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