The British Government excels at providing good reasons for allowing people to die. We don’t pay ransoms because it only encourages more hostage-taking – cold comfort to the likes of the late Alan Henning and his family. Likewise, we don’t contribute to European efforts to save the lives of would-be asylum-seekers crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy, overcrowded boats because if we did it would only encourage more to attempt the same thing. On these grounds, the Good Samaritan would have hurried by lest his charity encourage other rash souls to take the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
For the past year Italy has carried out one of the most disinterested and compassionate programmes – called Mare Nostrum or “Our Seas” – ever launched by a European government. At a cost of €9m (£7m) per month, and with the involvement of an average of 900 crew members at any one time, its naval and coastguard ships have scoured the Mediterranean for the wretched little refugee boats, rescuing an average of more than 400 people every day. So far 160,000 have been plucked from the sea.
But now Italy plans to run it down. A new initiative by Frontex, the European frontier agency, will patrol southern Europe’s coasts, but will not venture on to the high seas where many of Mare Nostrum’s survivors have been picked up. The result, as the Refugee Council put it this week, will be more people “needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep”. Britain remains fastidiously detached from both efforts, as if the problem did not concern us.
There is, however, more to this issue than callousness vs compassion. As the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay puts it, the very efficiency of Italy’s search-and-rescue programme seems to have created “an unintended ‘pull factor’?”, encouraging far more people to attempt the crossing. In 2008, 30,000 migrants made it to the Italian coast; the fact that the number has increased 500 per cent since then is a warning that the phenomenon, which has seen at least 3,000 die this year while attempting the crossing, is out of control.
The only ones to profit from this explosion of business are the people-traffickers, charging would-be asylum-seekers $2,000 (£1,240) or more each for the passage, and sending them out in horribly unseaworthy vessels, often without food or water. Their victims include not only those who drown or die of exposure but also the tens of thousands of survivors now milling around on the outskirts of Italian and other European cities without documents, without prospects, without money, their vision of a European Eldorado turned to ashes. They include the groups of feuding migrants in Calais trying to smuggle themselves on to lorries bound for Britain.
Mare Nostrum was a magnificent exercise in compassion but it was not a solution. As the Refugee Council points out, the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War – but because immigration is a toxic issue, no serious attempt has been made to address it. For those dispossessed by war or persecution, there is practically no safe and legal means to apply for asylum. Hence the flood of people on to those terrible boats.
If Europe is as civilised as it likes to believe, this cannot go on. The people-trafficking scourge must be attacked at source: the drastic reduction in Somali-based piracy brought about by concerted international action could show the way. European governments, including Britain’s, need to recognise that the further shores of the Mediterranean are in desperate turmoil, there are many in genuine and urgent need of asylum and they must be allowed to seek it in a dignified way. We cannot pass by on the other side.
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