‘Four years of Western inaction in Syria have contributed to the crisis in the Mediterranean. So has our ill-conceived intervention in Libya’
With the good summer weather, the number of refugees seeking passage to Europe’s southern coasts is bound to increase. So is the tragedy of their frequent death by drowning. Refugee numbers in recent years have grown to staggering proportions. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), 87,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to Italy in the first seven months of 2014 alone. These numbers are not abating and are made more troubling by growing casualties among those attempting the crossing. Europe is struggling to find answers. A hot-button issue in the UK’s recent electoral campaign, immigration is not likely to return to manageable levels any time soon. What should Europe do?
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, roughly half of Syria’s 23 million people have been made refugees. While many are in camps in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, the majority are internally displaced people. Four years into the conflict, with 250,000 recorded deaths and counting, it should not come as a surprise that smuggling desperate people out is a thriving business.
Many of the escape routes from Syria and other trouble spots such as Somalia and Eritrea go through Libya, a country that no longer exists save on paper, since the removal of its ruthless and eccentric strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, who was defeated and executed by rebels aided by a Western-led air campaign in 2011. UNHCR data show that most people crossing the sea into southern Europe are escaping Syria, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya and their internal turmoil.
It should be obvious that the only long-term solution to the Mediterranean’s boat people is a review of the West’s longstanding policies towards those countries and their areas of conflict.
Ordinary people rarely sell all their belongings and abandon their home for a passage at sea on a leaky ship — the human wave seeking to cross the Mediterranean is escaping civil war and sectarian mayhem, failed states and a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.
Addressing this crisis by solving what causes people to escape may seem costly and far-fetched. Yet, it is not at all clear that years of naval deployment in the Mediterranean, increased spending on rescue operations, transit camps, and an army of social workers and translators is cheaper than helping Syrian rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad. When destitute people arrive, they must be fed, sheltered and medically treated. Their children must be educated. They must be taught new languages, skills and social norms. It is a daunting task, costly and fraught with social hurdles and cultural barriers. Europe might not be able to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, on top of the legal immigration already arriving.
This is not an attempt to endorse an anti-immigration policy. Nor is it an effort to blame Western leaders for all that went wrong in Libya after their involvement in toppling Gaddafi. It is also not an attempt to pin responsibility for the Syrian tragedy on President Obama’s refusal to punish Assad for his recourse to chemical weapons, his brutal barrel bombing campaign against civilians, or the other atrocities being committed daily in Syria.
Arab societies should take primary responsibility for the rapid descent into chaos and the obscene violence unleashed against civilians across Arab lands. Equally, the West is not primarily responsible for civil war and lawlessness in the Horn of Africa.
But it was our choice to wash our hands of Syria’s civil war from the start, and Libya’s chaos within a year of Gaddafi’s downfall has not left us immune from the negative consequences of those conflicts.
Our response is a classic case of seeking to cure a brain tumour with aspirin.
Europe is understandably focused on both the political question of what immigration policy is best — including how to share the burden among member states — and the practical question of how to manage and fund the current crisis.
So far, Europe has decided to strengthen search and rescue operations at sea and try to disrupt the networks of human smugglers who profiteer from the traffic.
There is no dispute that the socio-economic and cultural cost of such numbers of arrivals on Europe, at a time of sluggish economic growth, high unemployment and rising social tensions across the continent, may be too high to sustain. It is also understandable that many resources are devoted to saving human lives and to target those who profiteer from this staggering scale of human suffering.
But this course of action may offer temporary solutions to a problem that will continue to fester. Europe should also work with its transatlantic allies to explore how the West can help bring an end to the tragic and chaotic circumstances of these countries.
An end to Syria’s war would stem the flow of refugees and, in time, create the conditions for many of them to return home. A restoration of order under a functioning central government in Libya would also empower state institutions and functions currently lacking there — border control, combating smuggling — that are indispensable in tackling the scourge of human traffickers.
This is not a call for the West to launch a new military adventure in the Middle East and North Africa. But it is foolish to think that anything short of decisive support to Syrian rebels to defeat Assad is going to help us persuade Syrians to stay home.
Four years of Western inaction in Syria have contributed to this crisis. So has our precipitous and ill-conceived intervention in Libya, followed by an equally precipitous exit from its chaotic scene.
Restoring order, decency and, in time, prosperity to those countries seems a much better long-term policy than bickering about patrolling boats and immigration quotas.