Rescued in in the Aegean Sea, September 6, 2014. Photo: Coast Guard Aegean Sea Region Command.
With a death toll close to that of the Titanic sinking, a week of disasters in the Mediterranean has forced UK and EU leaders to pay attention to the failure of their brutal policy of withdrawing rescue services.
act immediately to fund initiatives such as the joint MSF/MOAS rescue mission.
These disasters have made clear what is necessary. Still there are attempts by UK and EU leaders to displace responsibility, to distract from the primary causes and thus avoid effective action.
This exodus is not caused by “human traffickers”, it’s caused primarily by war. The term “human traffickers” is misleading, conflating people-smuggling with enslavement. Those fleeing across the Mediterranean, while they may be exploited by boat owners, are not enslaved by them. They have not been kidnapped and sold into bondage, but have for the most part made a rational choice between trying to survive war, and trying to survive the sea.
Attacking smugglers is no more a good answer than withdrawing rescue services was.
It’s not that long ago that some Europeans were charging other Europeans who were fleeing genocide enormous sums of money to make an escape by sea. For example Denmark proudly remembers 1943, when almost all of Denmark’s Jews escaped the Holocaust with the help of their fellow citizens. Less emphasis is placed on the fact that many were charged amounts equivalent of up to £5,500 for places on boats making the relatively short crossing to safety in Sweden.
Where there is desperation there will be exploitation, so tackle the reasons for the desperation to stop the exploitation.
- Resettle more of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
- Create safe routes as an alternative to dangerous sea crossings.
- Act to end the worst of the violence: Stop Assad’s barrel bombs.
Another diversion in some responses to the Mediterranean crisis has been to blame the deaths on NATO’s intervention in Libya.
But note that Libyans themselves are barely represented amongst those fleeing. Syrians make up over a third of those entering the EU irregularly according to figures from Frontex, the EU’s border agency. The next largest national group are people from Eritrea. 67,000 Syrians sought asylum in Europe last year, most arriving by sea.
In contrast UNHCR figures show the current total of Libyan refugees and asylum seekers at under 6,000 worldwide—though the number seeking refuge abroad may yet rise significantly as UNHCR believe up to 400,000 Libyans are internally displaced.
The true role of Libya in the Mediterranean crisis is as a place of transit, though it is far from being the only one. Sailing from Libya has become easier since the fall of the Gaddafi dictatorship. Previously a deal between Italy and Libya resulted in the regime acting as Europe’s outsourced border guards, locking up people trying to flee on boats. Here’s a description from a 2010 report by PRI’s The World, describing the experiences of Daoud from Somalia:
Daoud tried to make the trip north aboard a smuggling vessel, but he was arrested as he tried to board, and sent to a prison in Tripoli, where he became seriously ill.Daoud’s experience shows why this policy was morally unsustainable. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime showed it was also practically unsustainable. Had NATO not intervened to protect civilians there, the likely result would not have been a more stable Libya, but a longer and more bloody revolution as we’ve seen in Syria, with many more desperate people fleeing to Europe’s shores.
“I believe it used to be a chemical plant because all of us had skin rashes and the Libyan prison guards used to beat us at least twice a day,” Daoud said. “And that’s what created and forced us to break out of jail. My intention was just to get out of Libya and head to the seas and to see where my luck takes me.”
Daoud alleges that his dark skin color had a lot to do with how he was treated in Libya: “They directly called me a slave. So, it was horrible. They will tell you in your face.”
Jean-Philippe Chauzy is director of communications for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. He’s traveled frequently to Libya, and said Daoud’s story is shared by many migrants there.
The 900 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean were killed by British government policy, by Dan Hodges, The Telegraph, 20 April 2015.
Mediterranean migrant deaths: where British parties stand, Channel 4 News, 15 April 2015.
UK Election Notes: Foreign Policy Opportunities – Resettling Syrian Refugees, by Dr Neil Quilliam, Chatham House, 10 April 2015.
Restart the Rescue: Help stop children drowning in the Mediterranean, campaign by Save the Children.
Read more: A manifesto for Syria
Join us in London on the 26th of April to answer the call from Syria.