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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Militarising the Med won’t solve the migrant issue

Can Europe with a purportedly more evolved sense of human rights ignore the migrant crisis until the death toll reaches tens of thousands or more?
Militarising the Mediterranean is an ironic remedy given that many of the latest influx of refugees are the consequence of failed multi-state intervention in Libya followed by fruitless rounds of peace negotiations. Giuseppe Lami / EPA
Militarising the Mediterranean is an ironic remedy given that many of the latest influx of refugees are the consequence of failed multi-state intervention in Libya followed by fruitless rounds of peace negotiations. Giuseppe Lami / EPA

Without binoculars, the vessel looked like an orange and blue blob that progressively increased in size. The blue colour was that of the six-metre boat and the orange lump was the group of 200 people huddled together, each one wearing brightly coloured life jackets.

Last July, the crew of San Giorgio, an Italian military vessel that was then part of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, was preparing for what would be one of its largest single operations.

On this particular day, the staff anticipated at least one rescue. But their estimate was modest. Four boatloads of refugees arrived within six hours – a total of 1,171 people.

Fast forward a year and Mare Nostrum, no longer in effect, appears no more than a fairy tale. Despite the operation’s shortcomings, the rescues themselves were meticulously efficient.

Contrary to some predictions that search and rescue was a “pull factor” that led to an increased influx, the flow of migrants has not stopped. In fact the numbers have doubled.  

While there have been renewed calls for protection of migrants after the recent deaths, EU ministers last week concluded that military operations targeting “criminal migrant-smuggling networks” would be a first priority.

Militarising the Mediterranean is an ironic remedy given that many of the latest influx of refugees are the consequence of failed multi-state intervention in Libya followed by fruitless rounds of peace negotiations.

 That the action plan set forth by the EU on April 21 does not mention the word “rescue” a single time speaks volumes about the collective European priority. The mandate of the new mission will remain the same as Triton that replaced Mare Nostrum at the end of 2014 – securing borders. To extend the irony, European leaders have called on their Lebanese counterparts to keep their border open.  

Meanwhile, amid the power struggle between Tripoli and Tobruk in Libya, there has been little respite for civilians. Migrants and asylum seekers fall lowest on the rung in terms of rights.

With an extended network that reaches from the Logar villages of Afghanistan to the depths of the Sahara, combating the smugglers is not as simple as shooting on sight on the Mediterranean.

These alliances are ad hoc and evolving. As long as the political vacuum persists in Libya, the smugglers will pursue their evil trade. In the event of a new government, they are likely to form new alliances to secure their interests.

So the most practicable discussion at hand is whether we can actually stem the flow of boat journeys that are often the result of little or no choice and in some cases lack of knowledge of the risks involved.

What is needed are refugee camps for the displaced escaping the Middle East’s war zones. Then, safe passage provided for those who desire it.

If asylum seekers see that refugee camps can aid in their transition without becoming indefinite holding cells, they would be less likely to resort to life risking journeys. But the camps must have the mandate for expedited asylum, funding that allows them to provide havens and the ability to safely repatriate those who do not qualify for asylum. Such measures would rechannel money from the profiteers of human smuggling to organised channels of asylum. It is not extraordinary to call upon the EU, North America and other wealthy countries to take in 1 million Syrians over five years. The distribution within the EU’s 28 member states will mean that “a country like the UK will take in 14,000 per year”, according to UN Special Rapporteur François Crépeau.

This suggestion put forth by Mr Crépeau is rooted in historical precedent. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, at least 3 million fled to neighbouring countries. Approximately 2.5 million were resettled in North America and Europe. A vast majority assimilated into their new homes, contributing to their local economies.

 The power to change the status quo from deterrence to protection and to open humanitarian corridors is ultimately vested in the political will of individual European countries.

Wary of anti-immigration parties that have been gaining ground, most European leaders have sidelined search and rescue as an ongoing measure. Meanwhile, at least half a million asylum seekers are stranded on the other side of the sea, biding their time in a hostile environment and waiting to board the vessels of death.

While resettlement during the Vietnamese refugee crisis was successful, it did not account for at least 500,000 boat people who lost their lives at sea. Can Europe with a purportedly more evolved sense of human rights ignore the crisis until the death toll reaches tens of thousands or more by the end of this year?

Preethi Nallu is working on a multimedia project called Parallel Journeys: Seasons of Migration that explores the Mediterranean crossings through individual narratives

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