How is the EU dealing with the issue of migration in the Mediterranean basin? What is the citizens’ perception of the migration crisis and of the policies carried out by the EU in response? What is the role of non-state actors?

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Boat people in the Mediterranean has not been a clunky attempt to ride the wave of public attention on the tragedy of thousands of people losing their lives off the southern coasts of Europe. Rather, it has been one of the few occasions to have an open debate from a civil society perspective on migration in the Mediterranean basin. The round table was promoted by the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania, as part of the Master Program in Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations, in collaboration with Mediterranean Affairs.

Francesca Azzarà (Vice Director of Mediterranean Affairs), Daniela Irrera (Professor of Global Civil Society at the University of Catania), Grega Jug (Blogger at EU360), were the main speakers of the event, held on December 16, 2015. The contribution of Francesca Azzarà has confirmed the link that exists between the economic crisis, unemployment, and the perception of migration as a threat. “So far, the debate on immigration has been exploited by populist parties who have always combined it with the risk of higher unemployment rates for the nationals,” she said. “The success of the Front National in France should lead Member States to channel efforts to raise the EU role in containing and countering the phenomenon.” The invasive role the populist and far right wing parties play in the political arena, as well as the emphasis they put on migration as a tangible menace to employment and security, recall the function mass media have in this field. In December, Cécile Kyenge, a MEP and former minister of the Italian government, said that “the fear of migration felt by many EU citizens is based on misinformation.” To offset this risk it is necessary to receive valid information from a wider range of channels providing both top-down and bottom-up information. Civil society plays a vital role in the latter.

Grega Jug, as founder and editor of the blog EU360, is part of the discussion. EU360’s main goal is to break any barrier between citizens and EU politics and policies by working as a linker. “The aim of the blog is to present the EU and its policies from a European, rather than a national point of view,” he explained. “The presence of the EU in the Slovenian media is quite limited. The majority of media outlets usually report regarding the EU summits, important legislation that was adopted by the EP and about EU decision affecting Slovenia. […] A similar situation can be seen in the case of the refugee crisis, where the reporting can be shortly described as follows: ‘Slovenia cannot take such a big number of refugees and the EU is not doing enough to prevent refugee arrivals. Therefore, Slovenia has to protect itself with enhanced security on its borders’.”

The role of civil society organizations is of great relevance against the backdrop of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Shipwrecking, people in distress, bodies are regularly found off the coasts. The victims would be higher in number without the Search and Rescue (SAR) operations carried out by many NGOs. The situation of the crew of the German NGO Sea-Watch, which saved hundreds of people last year, is an example. Professor Daniela Irrera’s focus on the case of Médecins Sans Frontières’ operations have contributed to heat the debate. Given that SAR operations are not an adequate response because of the breadth of the migratory phenomenon, Professor Irrera outlined the challenges and critical issues these NGOs are facing and then pointed out the need for improved transit conditions: there are scarce options for people to enter Europe in safety and most have to use the maritime routes.

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The speakers’ contributions have fostered a lively debate with the audience on the externalization of border controls at transit countries and countries of origin, on the enforcement of migration cooperation deals between the EU and its member states with third countries and their humanitarian consequences. If, on November 11-12, 2015 the city of La Valletta, Malta, hosted the biggest high-level summit ever organized on the issue of migration, under the impetus of the crisis-response mood, the significance of the round table “Boat People in the Mediterranean” rests on its focus: to discuss migration in the Mediterranean from a civil society’s perspective.