If the appalling wickedness of the people smugglers around the coast of Italy tells us one thing, it is that this problem is more than one of mere maritime security.
Plainly, many of the people – such as the 1,400 or so who have been found aboard ships in the Mediterranean abandoned by their crews this week – are refugees from the wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. And plainly they are not simply looking to milk the social security system of whichever Western nation they wind up in. They are fleeing for their lives.
Of course every assistance should be granted to the Italian and Greek authorities in their struggle against these evil traffickers, who, in their murderous disregard for human life, are no better than the masters who ran slave ships across the Atlantic two centuries ago. If European solidarity is to mean anything, it is that those countries on the “front line”, including tiny Malta, need financial and naval assistance to deal with this criminal activity.
In addition, the countries that immediately border these conflicts need much more aid. Pakistan has more refugees than any other country; Lebanon the largest proportion in relation to its population. About half of refugees are children. Turkey, Iran and Jordan also have a much more serious problem with supporting refugees than any Western nation does.
At times of humanitarian crisis, such as when the Yazidi people, hunted down by Isis in Iraq, had to find refuge in cold and inhospitable mountainsides, the world responds with generosity. For the most part, though, hundreds of thousands of refugees have to subsist in the quiet squalor of border camps with inadequate shelter, food and water.
Even those in Europe who are most unsympathetic to their plight should, on their own narrow agenda, see that it is in the interests of Western states to help them survive and remain in those places, because otherwise they will be filling more rusty hulks aimed at the southern shores of the European Union.
This crisis presents the West with even more fundamental and difficult political challenges however. For the waves of migration from the Middle East and North Africa will continue for as long as wars, civil wars and terror force families from their homes and livelihoods. This is why the answer to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Adriatic lies in political solutions in places as diverse as Sudan and Syria.
When we leave those territories to fester, we allow terrorists to group and regroup, most frighteningly in the case of Isis in Iraq and Syria, but also as we witnessed before in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden’s followers. Now it is Isis and Boko Haram who are terrorising people and creating the refugee crisis. The problem is not the level of housing benefit in Britain. We do not – should not – always militarily intervene, but we cannot also simply walk away.
Innocent people fleeing torture should not have to pay traffickers to save their lives. The West could offer a more rational, humane system of claiming asylum, do still more to help bring those lands back to stability, and could help countries, themselves not rich, who are neighbours of failed and failing states. The fact is that the refugees will always get through (and better they do than the alternative, which is that we should leave them to be executed or persecuted by the likes of Isis). They are coming our way in any case. It would be far better for all if their journeys were managed, rather than on ships locked on a collision course with us.
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