No End In Sight To The Exodus From Libya

There are no easy answers to the Mediterranean migrant crisis

Developing World Dispatches Europe Human Rights Immigration
The lucky few: Migrants rescued from shipwreck arrive at the port of Messina, Sicily. There have been 1,200 migrant deaths this April alone (photo: Giovanni Isolino/AFP/Getty Images)

A recent trip to Sicily was, as with all family holidays, dominated by food, wine, culture and swimming. The island, rich with history and natural beauty, was the setting for a week of rollicking good fun.

It was only on a day trip to Monreale, a Norman town on the north–western coast of the island, that I was faced with the uncomfortable reality of Sicily’s immigration problems. As we drove up the coast we were confronted by hundreds of migrants, walking along the roadside of the Conca D’oro valley. Some were barefoot, all were men, walking in the heat towards Monreale, driven by the hope that there they would find refuge before heading to mainland Italy and on into Europe.

The crisis of the Mediterranean boat people has intermittently captured the attention of the media, particularly since October 2013 when a boat carrying immigrants from Libya capsized 800 metres off the coast of Lampedusa killing 360. Most journeys, which can cost as much as 2,000 euros, begin in Libya, but passengers travel from Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Eritrea and Palestine.

In 2014 at least 218,000 migrants escaping poverty, war and persecution crossed the Mediterranean; many more did not survive the perilous journey hoping to Europe. Four shipwrecks this past April brought the estimated death toll to 1,200 for that month alone, compared with 3,200 for the whole of last year. This year’s toll is set to increase during the summer months, when the seas are calmer. The human tragedy cannot be ignored.

The figures are frightening, as are the details. One particularly horrifying case was reported after a shipwreck off Lampedusa last year, when a woman was found dead, still attached to the baby to which she had given birth on the fateful journey.

Such stories capture the imagination of the world’s press. But even then coverage is short-lived. In April, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged the scale of the crisis: “The world is horrified at the appalling loss of life that is taking place in the Mediterranean.” He went on: “We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea . . . we have to tackle [the problem] at every stage . . . Britain can make an important contribution to addressing the factors driving migration through our aid programme in key source countries.”

During the election campaign, UKIP leader Nigel Farage joined in, blaming David Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy: “It’s the European response that has caused this problem in the first place. The fanaticism of Sarkozy and Cameron to bomb Libya . . . what they’ve done is to completely destabilise Libya, to turn it into a country with much savagery,” he told the BBC. Farage’s solution? To give Christians priority in asylum requests, a suggestion for which he was widely condemned. “I have not got a problem with us offering refugee status to some Christians from those countries,” said Farage. The election — in which UKIP received more votes than the SNP and the Liberal Democrats combined — suggests that the British public is inclined to agree with him.

Then there was the row over whether Ed Miliband had accused Cameron of having blood on his hands. Miliband, during his ill-fated campaign, claimed: “The failure of post-conflict planning has been obvious. David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya was a country whose institutions could simply be left to evolve and transform themselves. The tragedy is this could have been anticipated and it should have been avoided.” This spat was quickly forgotten, yet the story of the boat people will not go away.

And it’s not just politicians who are concerned. Pope Francis has regularly addressed the matter, saying in April: “We must not tire in our attempts to solicit a more extensive response at the European and international level.” He called on Christians to remember that “these are men and women like us, brothers seeking a better life” and he urged world leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring”. The Pope’s words emphasised that the crisis is, first and foremost, a humanitarian disaster.

What is the civilised solution to this ever-increasing problem? The crisis stretches beyond the treacherous voyages across the Mediterranean. What happens to the lucky few who reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, Sicily or mainland Italy? 

I asked a Sicilian about the domestic reaction to the problem. The Italians are “very angry,” he said, “furious”. Italy is in the throes of an economic crisis, with youth unemployment at 43 per cent. They simply do not have the infrastructure to support the migrants, each one of whom costs the Italian government between 35 and 43 euros per day. Predictably, there is a lot of blame being passed around. The Italians blame Europe for failing to assume collective responsibility for what they believe to be a European, not a purely Italian problem.

The blame isn’t solely directed towards the failure of EU member states to act collaboratively, but also towards the British and the French for helping to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in October 2011. It is true that, while Gaddafi’s rule over Italy’s former colony was brutal, there were fewer ships leaving Libya for Italy before he was deposed. In August 2008, Gaddafi signed a treaty between Italy and Libya, with then-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi,  declaring that the two countries would work together to return all illegal migrants found at sea. The result? European Commission figures show that in 2008 32,052 people were caught trying to enter Italy. In 2009, after the signing of the treaty, this figure fell to 7,300.

Then there was Mare Nostrum, the eye-wateringly expensive search and rescue mission launched in October 2013. Mare Nostrum cost the EU 9 million euros a month and saved more than 150,000 lives during the year that it ran. The operation undoubtedly decreased the loss of human life, but the general consensus in Italy is that it acted as a green light to the refugees, who, upon being saved, were taken into Italy and therefore the EU. Something similar would decrease the number of migrants drowned that in  Mediterranean waters, but wouldn’t solve the problem. In 2014, Italy decriminalised undocumented immigration, a move that was seen to further encourage North African migrants to its shores.

If current trends continue, the number of boat people landing on Italian territory will surpass last year’s figures significantly. Many believe that the ships carrying these people should be destroyed. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, recently weighed in saying that destroying the vessels would be “going too far”. Media loudmouth Katie Hopkins added fuel to the fire by asserting that we should “make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches . . . once gunships have driven them back to their shores, boats need to be confiscated and burned on a huge bonfire.” Her characteristically poisonous provocations were met with outrage,  but her argument nods in the direction of Australia, which last year introduced a law that allows it to turn away boats carrying asylum seekers from Australian shores, when it is considered “safe to do so”. The numbers of refugees reaching Australia dropped substantially. However, such policies neglect our moral duty to refugees so desperately and dangerously trying to escape horrors that we cannot begin to imagine.

But honouring our moral obligation isn’t as easy as it sounds. The current state of affairs is regularly described as a Biblical exodus. In April, in the wake of yet more boats capsizing and lives being lost, the European Commission Joint Foreign and Home Affairs Council released a Ten Point Action Plan alongside a statement emphasising the importance of collaboration between its 28 member states. “Action points” included increasing financial resources and a “systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers,” fingerprinting migrants and an EU-wide “voluntary pilot project on resettlement”. But the only long-term way to stop the influx is to create stable political infrastructures in the countries from which the refugees are escaping, and to patrol the seas in order to stop the death count rising.

Now the UK election has been and gone, and still the boats keep coming. In the calm following the polling storm, the political classes appear to have turned their attention back to the crisis.

The European Commission demanded that Britain double the number of asylum seekers it accepts to 60,000 people a year, a proposal swiftly rejected by the UK. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini’s asserted that “no migrants” found  at sea should be “sent back against their will”. Home Secretary Theresa May disagreed. She acknowledged that the current situation was “intolerable” but rejected suggestions that the UK government should be part of any EC scheme: “The UK will not participate in a mandatory system of resettlement or relocation . . . such an approach would only act as an increased pull factor across the Mediterranean and encourage more people to put their lives at risk.”

Her remarks were made the very same day that the British warship HMS Bulwark rescued more than 400 migrants adrift in the Mediterranean, thus emphasising the complex and contradictory nature of the problem. Then it emerged that ISIS has been smuggling its terrorists into Europe disguised as refugees. But for how long will this story hold the attention of the new government?