Tuesday, 16 July 2024 21:26

It is our antipathy towards migrants that kills in the Mediterranean

Another day, another death trap in the Mediterranean. We thought 2014 was bad: a record death toll, a surge in arrivals on European shores – and notably record numbers saved by the Italian search-and-rescue mission that plied 30,000 square miles of sea, fishing hundreds out of the water every day.

But now Europe is bracing for worse. Far worse. The Italian mercy mission disbanded last October, arguing that no one else in Europe was helping, least of all with the cost of saving lives which amounted to around €9m (£6.5m) a month. In its place, a far more limited EU force popped up, with one-third of the budget, fewer vessels and manpower, and crucially a mission statement that does not extend to search-and-rescue. The upshot: a 50-fold increase in deaths so far this year. Last year more than 3,000 died. This year more than 1,500 have already perished. And the summer migration “season” has barely begun.

The causes are complex. The numbers of people – men, women and children – desperate to move north has risen drastically over the past 10 years, as war carves its way through countries such as Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic and South Sudan, and economic atrophy grips the sclerotic Mediterranean rim and troubled states further south such as Eritrea. More than 120,000 Syrians have arrived in Europe since 2011. Almost 30,000 Eritreans entered Italy in 2014.

The routes to supposed safety have forked and forked again: you can try your luck from Turkey into Greece and up into the Balkans, around to northern Egypt or, as the vast majority do, through the lawless funnel that Libya has become. But no matter where you start, most itineraries require a sea passage. And the people who facilitate this are ruthless traffickers who don’t even expect to get their boats back, still less provide a crew or skipper.

A fishing vessel of the type that sank at the weekend might cost $10,000 (£6,700). But 600 passengers squashed into space for perhaps 200, each of them paying a minimum of $1,000 provides a handsome earnings multiple – a return on investment of almost 6,000%.

The standard operating model used to involve overpacking the boats, leaving them bobbing on the water with no crew in the hope the Italians would pick them up. Without the Italians, that model is fatally flawed.

While survivors are ferried to the relative safety of islands such as Lampedusa and Sicily, and victims disappear forever, the impact of these tragedies will reverberate as far as Brussels, where the EU stands accused of dereliction of duty. The United Nations has repeatedly urged Europe to be more active in its response to the huge displacements of people on its southern flank, instead of responding with a drawbridge-like mentality. Only Germany and Sweden, for instance, have taken significant numbers of Syrian refugees displaced by that country’s war.

Europe as a whole tends to prefer floating controversial ideas such as putting the onus for dealing with migrants – on land and at sea – on the north African countries through which they pass.

Immigration is a toxic issue in just about every European country. Privately, some officials fear that an enhanced search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean will not just deplete threadbare budgets, but act as a “pull factor” that will encourage and facilitate record levels of migrant arrivals on to a continent that has made it clear it wants no more boat people.

Despite the steady drip-drip of death, the Mediterranean story has yet to resonate with a European public short on empathy: Guardian stories on migration on our website consistently attract very low numbers of readers.

Could 2015 be the year that this changes? EU leaders will come under intense pressure this week to change tack, do something, perhaps reinstate search and rescue, certainly explain more what is meant by “working with third countries”, as a European commission statement said on Sunday.

But the sad fact remains that until public opinion cares more about children drowning at sea than it does about immigrants settling next door, politicians will be loth to take a lead.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Guardian. All rights reserved.

By: Mark Rice-Oxley

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