Leading article: Europe has an obligation to these desperate African refugees

If Italy needs assistance to deal with migration flows, other EU states should provide it

Share
Related Topics

Fortress Europe has closed its gates. This week a ferry left Tripoli carrying 1,800 people. The vessel was first turned away from Malta. Then it was refused permission to put ashore at Lampedusa, the small island south of the Sicilian mainland. The passengers on this vessel are not economic migrants, but refugees from a war zone. Most are believed to be North Africans who were working in Tripoli when the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi's regime began. Their mistake is to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The risks to which they are now exposed are plain enough. On Sunday a boat carrying migrants that had left the southern Libyan port of Zarzis capsized off Tunisia. Some 35 people are feared to have drowned. One of the survivors reported that a boat that passed them in the water failed to stop.

The French far-right politician Marine Le Pen was in Rome yesterday, having visited Lampedusa the previous day. Unsurprisingly, the National Front leader's compassion was directed towards the residents of the Italian island, rather than the refugees on the arriving boats. She advocated turning migrants back at sea before they reach Europe. Yet, as the incident amply demonstrates, this is already taking place.

Indeed, Italy has been following such a disgraceful policy for years. In 2009 the Italian navy turned back a boat of refugees from international waters to Libya without performing any screening of the passengers to see whether they were in need of medical attention. This was the course laid out in the reprehensible deal signed between the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and Colonel Gaddafi in 2008. The Libyan dictator promised to prevent migrants passing through the country in return for Italian payments. And if migrants made it on to boats, the Italian navy would have the right to deliver them back into the clutches of the Gaddafi regime. Human Rights Watch has credible testimony from migrants who claim to have been abused by the Libyan authorities after being handed over.

The Italian government has warned of a migration of "biblical proportions" as a result of the present turmoil in North Africa. That is an echo of the threat of Gaddafi some weeks ago that the consequence of his fall would be an invasion of Europe by Africans. Some 21 boats have arrived on Lampedusa this week from Tunisia, carrying 1,600 migrants. Some 9,000 people in total have arrived since January. That is a significant movement of people, but hardly an intolerable influx, let alone a biblical exodus.

The crisis does serve to emphasise why it is in Europe's interests for the Gaddafi regime, whose belligerence is the reason for the outflow, to come to an end. It also highlights the folly of the Western policy of hugging this ruthless dictator close for so many years. If Lampedusa and Italy need assistance to deal with migration flows from Africa, other EU states should provide it. Last month's proposal from southern European states for an EU solidarity fund was sensible. Britain must do its bit, especially after our role in arming Gaddafi. So must France and Germany. European states must share the responsibility and cost of our collective humanitarian obligations.

There is much uncertainty about what happens next. We do not yet know the size of the migrant outflow, which depends on how long the revolt in Libya continues, or where it spreads next. We do not know what the total costs will be, either. But there is one thing of which we can be sure: to turn back boats of desperate people is an act that shames our entire continent.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Thame i...

Graduate Project Manager

£25000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Teaching Assistant Cornwall

£45 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: TEACHING ASSISTANTS REQUIRED F...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past