Europe can’t just stand back and despair while tragedy unfolds in the Mediterranean

The idea that our leaders bear little responsibility for the 'boat people' is a complete myth

Memphis Barker
Tuesday 21 April 2015 17:10
A man rescues an migrant from the Aegean sea; some 80 per cent of those arriving illegally in Europe have done so only after paying smugglers to facilitate some or all of their passage
A man rescues an migrant from the Aegean sea; some 80 per cent of those arriving illegally in Europe have done so only after paying smugglers to facilitate some or all of their passage

“Boating season”, as it is known, has only just begun. The weather is warmer, the sea calmer, and conditions easier for a ship to cross the Mediterranean. While most of Europe starts to think of holidays, of flip-flops and beach umbrellas, residents in Southern Italy and across the foot of the continent – in places like Lampedusa and Catania – will be setting their teeth: down South, summer brings bodies.

Of the 900 or so passengers who were capsized on Saturday, only 28 have been recovered alive. A conservative death toll of 700 would make this the most statistically shocking disaster yet, nearly double the October 2013 sinking that brought the Pope, and wider attention, to Lampedusa. You could call it a “tragedy” if its roots lay less in political obfuscation and failure.

Europe has no excuse. What may look like simple repetition of a familiar story – migrants die at sea – is in fact a more complicated, and less accidental, sequel. This year, the chances of migrants surviving a shipwreck are much smaller than last. Roughly the same number has tried the journey; but the number of deaths in the first quarter of 2015 has risen tenfold, to around 1,500. Traffickers are no more ruthless, the journey no more perilous. But when a ship goes down today, help is far from at hand. The EU search-and-rescue service, which recently took over from the Italian version – Mare Nostrum – hugs the Italian coast, and runs on a third of the cost.

Triton, as this threadbare operation is known, was born of a myth, one peddled by politicians who either were not thinking hard enough, or simply did not care. Hardly any migrants knew about Mare Nostrum, let alone based their decision to seek a life in Europe on its existence. Yet in justifying the decision to drop the excellent Italian operation, a UK foreign office minister referred to it as an “unintended pull factor” that, by encouraging those on the shores of Libya to think the voyage less risky, had led to “more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

It may be easy to say in hindsight, with the death toll vastly increased, but it was also – for many – easy to say at the time. The only significant “pull factor” for migrants is the prospect of a new life once across the sea. And far more significant in any case are the “push” factors: which if you’re a Syrian or an Iraqi should be obvious, but extend to unlimited military service imposed on men in Eritrea, or the dearth of jobs for young people in Senegal. Most of these “voyages of hope” are not made following a careful examination of an A to Z; people are blown from their homes, either by munitions or the winds of promise. And now Europe lets them drown.

The idea that Europe’s leaders bear little responsibility for the “boat people”, and, in deciding to do little about them, are only reflecting the wishes of the populations they serve, is a myth. Much as Cameron might like the electorate to forget, both Britain and France helped create the roiling instability in Libya, in a 2011 intervention that the “man on the street” is unlikely to have backed, had he cared about it at all. Even states that have joined none of the past decade’s adventures in the Middle East owe something, by virtue of their EU membership. Share the boon, share the burden. A co-ordinated response – apportioning refugees across Europe – might not be easy to implement, but it would end the farce of current regulations that require asylum-seekers to stick where they first make land. To whit, in Greece, or Italy – where few want to stay, and far too many already are.

It is possible, though few believe it now, for countries to consider the common good: Germany pledged 20,000 resettlement places to Syrian refugees; Sweden is similarly generous. I am with Elly Schlein, the Italian MEP who said on the Today programme that leaders of the more stingy member states should not always “run after” what the people think, but be brave enough to fulfil their “moral and legal” obligations. If the larger states were to move in that direction – and that means Britain and France – others could present it to their populations as a fait accompli, a prerogative, however unfortunate, of the EU.

Another myth that gets repeated after every disaster in the Mediterranean is that Europe can somehow stop the migration problem “at source”. We should know by now that neither the West’s mandarins nor its armies can do much to fix failing states, and so encourage people to stay in them. Too often the suggestion that solutions can be found “over there” – across the sea – shifts the debate away from what should be done over here.

By all means look to improve matters in Somalia and Iraq, or crackdown on people traffickers, but where Europe can really make a difference is in its own rescue services and its own asylum system. So that is where to start.

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