A desperately sad story raising serious questions about policy and assumptions. It really needs no fuller introduction ...
As African migrants continue to risk dangerous voyages in search of lives free from conflict or poverty, Europe — their destination of choice — is torn by competing demands for humanitarian action and political pragmatism.
The latest disaster off Libya on Sunday, with the loss of more than 800 lives according to the United Nations, was quickly followed by further alerts in the Mediterranean between the North African coast and Italy.
The attempted crossings, and the shipwrecks, have become a regular feature of a desperate, relentless process. And there seems no doubt they will continue, despite measures agreed to in emergency talks on Monday between European Union foreign and interior ministers in Luxembourg.
After one of worst shipping calamities in memory, ministers approved tougher action to target traffickers, including the destruction of ships. The EU’s Mediterranean patrols will place renewed emphasis on search and rescue.
EU leaders have been summoned to a summit in Brussels on Thursday to add detail to the plans, which also envisage further cooperation with the refugees’ home countries in order to stem the flow of asylum seekers.
The proposals are familiar but have assumed a greater sense of urgency after Sunday’s disaster triggered widespread international condemnation of Europe’s handling of the crisis.
Whether they will be any more effective than past attempts, or attract wider support among the EU’s 28 nations, is open to doubt.
Federica Mogherini, a former Italian foreign minister who now co-ordinates EU foreign and security policy, said that there were “no more excuses” for failing to act.
She spoke earlier of a need “to work on the root causes of migration and, most of all, on the instability of an area that is broader and broader, from Iraq to Libya, with the duty to save human lives shared by all the EU’s 28 nations and not left solely to the southern countries”.
After the meeting, she said: “I hope today is the turning point in the European conscience, not to go back to promises without actions.”
But consensus has proved elusive. Few doubt the sincerity of the EU’s resolve to protect life, or its recognition that what is happening in the Mediterranean is an appalling human tragedy. But there is a lack of awareness of the political concerns about uncontrolled immigration.
The growth of the far right across Europe is to some extent attributable to dismay at the influx of immigrants from Africa. Reports of Christian migrants on one ship being thrown overboard by Muslims hardly soothe concerns in a continent where rising Islamophobic sentiment has been fuelled by terrorist attacks and the recruitment of thousands of young people to fight with extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
According to some academic observers, the true impact of migration on EU resources would be manageable if shared evenly among member states. But the lack of unity has left Italy, Greece and Malta bearing the brunt of the crisis.
The response of many Europeans to each sinking and heavy loss of life is not just “how to save them” but “how to stop them”. In a snap opinion poll, one French television channel found only one in four respondents in favour of greater European efforts to prevent further drownings.
It was partly with a view to trying to “stop them” that Italy last year abandoned its search and rescue naval initiative, known as Mare Nostrum (Our Sea).
Some other European countries, notably Britain, feared the mission simply encouraged more migrants to risk the crossing. Perhaps more important for Italy, feeling intolerable strain on the front line of Europe’s struggle against mass migration, they were unwilling to share the burden of operating costs of €9 million (Dh35.5m) a month.
Mare Nostrum was replaced by a slimmer, EU-run operation, Triton, with more modest aims and manpower, and a much-reduced budget.
Even this was controversial. Britain refused to contribute, again citing a reluctance to send signals of encouragement to would-be migrants and the people smugglers.
But a warning from Amnesty International that ending Mare Nostrum would “put the lives of thousands of migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe at risk” is coming tragically true, says Heaven Crawley, a research professor at Coventry University and a trustee with the UK lobby group Migrant Voice.
Writing at theconversation.com, a joint academic and journalistic news analysis project, she argues that the decision reflected European policy, giving “overwhelming focus to border control and migration management as well as fundamental, arguably wilful, misunderstanding of the reasons why people make the crossing in the first place”.
Prof Crawley says little attempt is made to explain why thousands of men, women and children would risk their lives to board overcrowded boats to cross a dangerous sea, or what their hopes and aspirations might be.
“Migration looks very different when seen from the perspective of migrants themselves,” she says, citing a range of motivations from economic betterment to the search for safety and protection.
“Although ‘migrants’ are represented as a homogeneous group, there are significant differences in the motivations, experiences and aspirations of those who travel to Europe.”
After the most recent disaster, British prime minister David Cameron placed blame squarely on “appalling human traffickers”.
“We’ve got to deal with the instability in the countries concerned. We’ve got to go after the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade,” he said.
“We’ve got to make sure, yes, there is an element of search and rescue, but that can only be one part of this and we should use all the resources we have, including our aid budget, which can play a role in trying to stabilise countries and trying to stop people from travelling.”
But what seems a reasoned approach to Britain is hopelessly unrealistic for Italy and other southern countries, especially Greece, which are expected to deal disproportionately with the consequences. Recent events show that the distinct possibility of death at sea, and the prospect of being held in poor conditions while asylum applications are processed even if the voyage is accomplished, is no deterrent.
“A dead goat does not fear the butcher’s knife,” one Ghanaian called Abdo, 32, waiting in the Libyan capital Tripoli for his chance to join a shipload of refugees, told British newspaper The Guardian.
At first glance, the statistics suggest a deluge. Last year, 219,000 refugees tried to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa, with at least 3,500 dying in the process, according to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Civil war in Syria has been the major driving force, but the “boat people” also include large numbers of Iraqis, Somalis, Eritreans and Nigerians.
Some analysts insist the problem is exaggerated. The Open Society Foundations, a humanitarian organisation founded by the investor and philanthropist George Soros, says European policy must pay more attention to economic and demographic realities rather than short-term political concerns.
The foundation accepts that the number of asylum seekers arriving in EU countries soared from 40,000 in 2013 to 110,000 in the first quarter of last year. But it contrasts these figures with a total of 1.7 million immigrants entering the bloc legally in 2012.
Under the EU’s contentious Dublin Regulation agreement, the country mostly closely associated with an immigrant’s arrival in Europe is responsible for processing their asylum application. This empowers other countries to return migrants to their point of entry, especially Italy and Greece, adding to the pressure on them. The Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi has reaffirmed his country’s dismay at the lack of European solidarity. And in Vatican City, Pope Francis changed his planned Sunday address to tell crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square: “They are men and women like us, our brothers seeking a better life; starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited victims of war.”
But action on the high seas may have little impact as long as Libya continues its present ungovernable and lawless path.
Some Italian politicians note ruefully that for all his sins, the deposed Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi took effective measures to prevent his ports being used by people smugglers.
Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League has called for a blockade of the Libyan coast to prevent further sailings.
Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat told the BBC: “We have what is possibly becoming a failed state at our doorstep. We have criminal gangs having a heyday organising these trips in rickety boats. We need to get the Libyan factions together to form some sort of government of almost national unity.”
But first, Europe must somehow patch together a common approach.
The BBC also quoted Dr Andrea Di Nicola, an Italian author and criminologist who spent two years interviewing people smugglers in Africa and the Middle East.
“They were almost laughing at Europe saying, ‘You cannot stop this. If you close your border I will earn more, my prices will increase’,” he said.
Thousands of people are involved in the “large, sophisticated networks” responsible for trafficking, said Dr Di Nicola.
“They trust each other. They work together. They are more capable of co-operating among each other in a criminal system than we are among countries of the European Union. This is incredible.”
* Articles for The National are reproduced with the editor's permission. See my work at http://www.thenational.ae/authors/colin-randall