Migrants in the Mediterranean: Europe's new disappeared

Not only is the UK government's decision to stop supporting search and rescue operations immoral, its replacement policy of deterrence to stem migration is also misguided. 

Nick MacWilliam
20 November 2014
migrants italy.jpg

"We're tired": Tunisian migrants speak out from a tent city in Palazzo San Gervasio, but voices will quiet as Britain removes its support for search and rescue operations, leaving migrants to their fate. Demotix/Emiliano Albensi. All rights reserved. 

There were very few survivors from the boat, which sank after being deliberately rammed by a larger vessel piloted by smugglers transporting the victims to Europe. Up to 500 people–including 100 children–are believed to have died in the September tragedy, an act of mass killing unparalleled in or around European territory since the Balkan War. The attack allegedly occurred after the migrants refused to board a smaller boat in the open water. One of the lucky few survivors said, “After they hit our boat, they waited until it had sunk completely before leaving. They were laughing.”

The story is almost beyond comprehension. How could anyone wilfully leave so many to drown in the middle of the open ocean? We can only imagine the terror and suffering as the boat sank and people fell into the water, desperately trying to stay afloat and hold onto their loved ones. The few who made it did so by clinging on to bits of flotsam until passing ships finally picked them up. The rest perished, undocumented and nameless. We don’t know who they are, where they came from, or exactly how many of them there were. But regardless of nationality, they are the disappeared of Europe.

In the absence of official records, it’s hard to say exactly how many people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) released a report in late-September putting the number at 3,072, accounting for 75% of worldwide migrant deaths. But with so many lost at sea or along the way, the real figure could be far higher. The majority of those attempting to reach Europe come from the Middle East and Africa, fleeing war, oppression or economic hardship in the hopes of a better future. The high risks involved are evidently worth taking, for at least they offer a chance. Subject to a high possibility of death, severe discomfort and the whims of the smuggler gangs, the fact that so many choose to undertake these dangerous journeys emphasises the terrible conditions they endure at home. 

But now, as thousands are dying in the Mediterranean, the British government has decided not only to turn a blind eye, but also to adopt a policy that will condemn many more to the same fate. On 27 October the Foreign Offices announced that Britain would be ending financial and logistical support for Mediterranean coast guard operations, further weakening what was already an insufficient response to the migration crisis. As the Cameron administration finds itself reeling from the rise of Ukip and as the far-right advances in other parts of Europe, it has resorted to callous measures in order to emphasise its anti-immigration credentials.

The UK government argues that to support rescue operations in the Mediterranean would encourage many more to attempt the journey. According to the Guardian, the Italian operation, Mare Nostrum, has been involved in the rescue of more than 100,000 people in the last twelve months. But with Mare Nostrum recently stopped, it is imperative that Europe implement a new search and rescue agency in the Mediterranean, but in this, it has failed miserably. The new Triton operation, coordinated by the Frontex continental border agency, will patrol waters up to only thirty miles from European coastlines, and with only a third of the resources of its Mare Nostrum predecessor.

But London is unmoved. Foreign Office minister Joyce Anelay (also known as Lady Anelay or Baroness Joyce of St John’s) spelled out the UK position in an official statement: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean...The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into seaworthy boats.”

There is clearly a drastic need to address the fundamental causes of the economic, political and social factors that cause so many people to flee their homelands. But the government has given no indication as to what it intends to do exactly in this respect. Sweeping foreign policy reform would be a start. But even if the government is serious about addressing these problems–though any statement to such effect still invites scepticism–these remain long-term strategies and goals.

Furthermore, recent history teaches us that not only is British immigration policy immoral and inhumane, it is also misguided. The migrant death toll on the US-Mexico border has soared in the last decade, with the numbers of unaccompanied child migrants spiking recently, with violence and insecurity driving people northward from Central America. This has continued in spite of a similar reaction from the US that Britain now puts forward. In 1994 the Clinton administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which strengthened border security along common access points in the United States. There were two main reasons behind this: first, to stop people from entering and, second, to discourage would-be migrants from even attempting the journey.  

Earlier this year, writing for Remezcla Magazine, I spoke to Robin Reineke, co-founder and executive director of the Arizona-based Colibrí Centre for Human Rights. The organisation seeks to identify the many nameless dead found along the US-Mexico border. She told me that this deterrence policy has little effect on the numbers making the journey. “I don’t think anything along the border is going to increase or decrease migration. Economic factors are going to have this effect. Massive structural and sociological factors are pushing people to leave their land and risk their lives crossing the border. That’s where we need to be looking in terms of solutions.”

The US government’s deterrence policy has had catastrophic results, she said. “From 1990 to 1999 the average number of remains found in southern Arizona was twelve [per year]. From 2000 through 2013 the average was 165, a more than tenfold increase. What happens is that the parts that can be patrolled are heavily fortified, while the parts which can’t are left open. And that’s where the migrants go. Most of these fall within Arizona and Texas.” It may be the case that increased patrols have led to the discovery of more bodies that would previously have remained unfound, but such numbers not only highlight the futility of a deterrent policy, but also suggest that it actively exacerbates the crisis. 

Last year, the US Customs and Border Protection agency released data which verified the findings of the Colibrí Centre. The data found that 477 people died along the border in 2012, a rate of 13.3 deaths for every 10,000 apprehensions carried out by the agency. This was an increase on eight deaths per 10,000 in 2010 and four deaths per 10,000 in 2005. In 1996 it was less than two. With such statistics based only on bodies found, it is probable that the toll is higher, as people perish in the vast desert or are disappeared by the gangs to whom they entrust their lives. In any case, it has long been clear that policies adopted by the Clinton administration, and reinforced by subsequent governments, have been little short of disastrous. 

In Europe it seems little heed has been paid to the example from across the Atlantic. Our government now embarks on the same misguided policy that will only result in a higher number of deaths. Britain has a moral duty to support relief operations in the Mediterranean, and to publicise a clear and detailed strategy for tackling the crisis at its root. This means a shift in economic and foreign policy, while pressuring other wealthy nations to do the same, in order to promote the stability of those global regions whose residents seek entry to the west.

It is, after all, those elite nations that control the geo-political arena that uproots people in the first place. The suffering in war-torn and impoverished regions is usually either directly or indirectly brought about by the military and economic model imposed by western nations as they seek to concentrate wealth and power within their own societies. From their point of view, modern capitalism and imperialism is a huge success. For the other side, the vast human detritus left behind in the tsunami of globalisation, there is nothing. Yet rather than seek solutions to the global catastrophes of poverty and conflict, the elite powers build higher walls and create bigger security forces to keep the masses out.

Last year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, David Cameron said JFK was an "inspiration" and a man who "demanded that his country rise to the challenges of its time". Cameron would do well to remember Kennedy's quote that "there are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction". Until serious measures are taken to deal with the Mediterranean catastrophe and reduce the death toll, regardless of the financial costs involved, the British government and all others turning a blind eye will be complicit in one of the gravest humanitarian crises of our time. But in the meantime, the nameless dead keep dying.

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