In the 1990s, I was invited to give a couple of lectures about 20th-century literature at the universities of Damascus and Homs. The students were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, asking questions about the influence of everyone from Aristotle to Derrida. Many of them, it turned out, had done postgraduate degrees at European universities; one young Syrian woman, who spoke English with a Welsh accent, had spent a year at Aberystwyth.
I can't help wondering whether the students I met all those years ago have been wounded or are living in refugee camps, assuming they are still alive. More than 76,000 people were killed in Syria last year, blown up by barrel bombs, shot by snipers while foraging for food or tortured to death in Bashar Assad's dreadful prisons. That's why so many Syrians and Kurds are desperate enough to risk their lives on rusty old ships in the Mediterranean.
Perhaps one of those students was on the ship which was reported to have been abandoned by people-smugglers last week, with the auto-pilot fixed on a collision course with the Italian coast. The Moldovan-registered vessel was only 45 minutes from disaster when it was boarded by Italian commandos. The most worrying thing about the story of the Blue Sky M, and a second boat which got into trouble off the Italian coast later in the week, is that it seems to mark a dangerous new tactic on the part of the smugglers.
Last October, the Italian government closed down Operation Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue mission set up to try to save the lives of thousands of migrants. More than 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean last year, which is bad enough, but Operation Mare Nostrum saved many more. The statistics from the operation are staggering: the Italian navy covered 27,000 square miles of sea, engaged in 421 operations, seized five mother ships and arrested 330 alleged people-smugglers. The stand-out figure is that it rescued 150,810 migrants, an average of more than 400 a day.
The cost to the cash-strapped Italian government was enormous. Nine hundred members of the armed forces were engaged in operations on any single day, along with 32 naval units and two submarines working in shifts. The Italians decided they could not afford to carry on funding the operation and, to be fair, it is hard to see why a single country should have to shoulder the burden on its own.
The problem, as refugee organisations pointed out last autumn, is that the EU mission which has replaced it is much smaller in scale. Operation Triton's budget is less than a third of Mare Nostrum's and it operates within 30 miles of the Italian coast, leaving huge areas of sea uncovered. It also, as we saw last week, makes the Mediterranean a great deal easier for people-smugglers to operate in.
They are using rusty old ships which aren't worth much – the Blue Sky M lost its safety certificate in recent months – and packing large numbers of people on board. There were around 800 migrants, most of them Syrian or Kurdish, on the ship when someone radioed for help, saying the crew had left the vessel. This may not have been true: in a fascinating twist, the Italian authorities have arrested four men whom they believe to be the captain and crew, suggesting they had disguised themselves as refugees.
Meanwhile a second vessel, the Ezadeen, was on a collision course with the Italian coast but ran out of fuel, leaving 360 refugees, including children and pregnant women in rough seas. The Ezadeen was built almost half a century ago and has been used in recent years to transport cattle, which is probably how the smugglers regarded the terrified people they left behind, assuming that they did actually abandon the vessel. The Ezadeen was towed to land by an Icelandic coast guard ship, the fourth such rescue it has been involved in since joining Operation Triton last month. In effect, the smugglers are "playing chicken" with the lives of the people on board; they're making so much money that they can afford to abandon the odd vessel, forcing the Italian authorities to launch a rescue mission.
So much for the notion that Operation Mare Nostrum was "encouraging" migrants, an idea that now seems as wrong as it is distasteful; the real "pull" factor is the war in Syria and a permanent state of fear in the east African state of Eritrea. Those two countries together accounted for almost half the refugees who tried to cross the Mediterranean last year.
It is hard for us to imagine, sitting in our warm living-rooms, how desperate these "migrants" are – or how like us. Becoming a refugee is one of the most depersonalising things that can happen to human beings; they become part of a mass, no longer individuals that we can empathise with but symbols of a problem we don't want to address. But the only thing that will stop the apparently endless flow of migrants is the ability to live safely in their own country.
When I think of the shattered streets and apartment blocks in Damascus and Homs, I'm reminded of the observation attributed by Tacitus to one of the Celtic chieftains who fought against the Romans: "They make a desert and call it peace." That's what the Assad family has done in Syria, and we shouldn't allow the EU to respond with a second-rate search-and-rescue system that risks leaving traumatised people to drown.
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