Mediterranean refugees -FT – 1 November 1943
Over the years, British politicians have clashed with EU officials on everything from the size of bankers’ bonuses to the power consumed by vacuum cleaners to how knobbly a carrot can be before it no longer counts as a vegetable. But this week Brussels put forward a conclusion on a matter of life and death that elicited harmonious murmur of agreement from Whitehall. It is that the best way to discourage refugees from north Africa from seeking a better life is to let them drown.
In 2013 700 people, many of them women and children, are believed to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. This year the figure is 3,000; the number of people setting out from the north African coast has probably increased by a similar proportion. About 180,000 have made it safely to European shores so far this year. Humanity and respect for life are basic European values. But in a crowded continent whose near neighbour is one of the world’s most impoverished and volatile regions, they are being tested.
Refugees travel far and wide after reaching dry land. The influx poses a problem for every European nation, but none has shown much interest in dealing with it. Or at least, none had shown much interest before last October, when the skipper of a stricken trawler squinted into the early morning sunlight and, seeing land, set fire to a blanket in hopes of alerting people on the shore. By the time help arrived the boat, crammed with fleeing Eritreans and Somalis and drifting about a mile off the Italian island of Lampedusa, had caught fire and sunk. More than 300 people are believed to have died.
That tragedy was the spur for Mare Nostrum, a yearlong Italian naval operation that has saved 150,000 lives. But Rome has had to shoulder the €9m a month cost alone. Other European capitals, content to benefit from the generosity and humanity of the Italians, have declined to lift a finger.
People-traffickers, many of them based in Egypt, have also been more than happy to take advantage of Italian compassion, often phoning the Italian navy to tell them about a leaky boat full of refugees off the north African coast. They know that under international law the Italians must then rescue those whom the smugglers have just abandoned. Not unreasonably, the Italians have concluded that they cannot continue to have their generosity abused.
And so the EU has been forced to act. It has chosen to do so, not by relieving the Italians or even by helping them, but by sending in the European border force. In place of Mare Nostrum will be an operation run by Frontex, the authority that polices the common frontier of the 26 nations participating in the Schengen area of passport-free travel. It will have only one-third of the funding of the Italian operation. And it will not be allowed to operate outside European territorial waters. It cannot rescue abandoned refugees in international waters, as the Italian navy has been doing; they will now be left to drown. This, it is suggested, will be helpful because it is considered that the salutary spectacle of women and children drowning in numbers could reduce the “pull factor” that is created when they are rescued.
Has Brussels really become so separated from common human decency that it can contemplate such arguments, let alone invite us to accept them?
The new European policy will not hurt the people traffickers, only one of whom has ever been arrested – in Egypt. Its intended victims are the hapless human flotsam those criminals have abandoned, who we now propose to leave to drown pour encourager les autres.
It will not work. The recent surge in Mediterranean refugees began after the sinking off Lampedusa, a tragic spectacle that did little to put people off. More deaths are unlikely to be much more effective as a deterrent. True, the Italian rescue operation also began after Lampedusa. But the passage is by any measure remains a dangerous one; the number of deaths has continued to increase. People attempt it because of the desperate circumstances they face. However grave the risks, little is more frightening than staying where they are.
This week the government said that Frontex ships would not be in breach of their international obligations to rescue those in peril at sea. The ships, ministers assured parliament, will be safely tucked away in European territorial waters, far away from the drowning refugees. It is a cynical justification, and one that belies the claim that this policy is motivated by a genuine care for the welfare of refugees
What should European nations, including the UK, be doing instead? Helping the Italians rather than abandoning them to do our dirty work would be a good start. Brussels could also do more to pressure the governments of Egypt and other north African departure nations to act against the traffickers – and provide them with the technical help to do so. In the 1960s the Special Boat Service was sent to the Caribbean to prevent drug traffickers from Colombia from reaching countries such as Jamaica and Barbados. If this worked in the Caribbean then why should it not in the Mediterranean now? People traffickers, too, are a grave threat to our security.
The EU should also invest much more development and diplomatic assistance in a region where conflicts have for too long been allowed to fester. Somalia is a failed state, Ethiopia close to one. And Eritrea is in the grip of a brutal regime that controls its citizens through open-ended “national service” for men and women from the age of 17. These are among the main sources of this caravan of human misery.
The UK should be pressing our EU partners to match the development assistance we have provided in north and east Africa. And we should all intensify our efforts. The west readily finds billions when it comes to fighting a war. But when it comes to preventing conflict or rebuilding peace, we offer little more than pennies.
Any of these – or all of them in combination – would be far better than the policy the EU proposes which, apart from being inhuman, immoral and potentially illegal, will also not work.