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A few more Africans will drown. But it will be worth it.

2014 November 1
by Paul Vallely

A few more Africans will drown. But it will be worth it. Today the European Union takes over the job of patrolling the Italian coastline to protect us from illegal immigrants. The EU has only allocated a third of what the Italians were spending on their search-and-rescue operation which has saved 150,000 souls from over-crowded boats at risk of sinking in the Mediterranean. So more refugees will drown.

But at least that will send a very clear message to the racketeers who profit from this traffic in human desperation. Such is the shameless argument of the British government who preposterously appear to think their move will prick the consciences of the people-smugglers and stop them piling people into rickety craft for the perilous journey from Africa to Europe.

The Italian operation which ended on Friday was called Mare Nostrum, which is Latin for Our Sea. The name was a recognition of a common humanity. It was launched a year ago after 366 people perished in  two boat disasters off the coast of Lampedusa.  Since then it has rescued an average of 400 people a day. It saved too many, it turns out.

When the Italians complained to the rest of the EU that they could not continue to afford the €9m a month patrols the response of the other 27 members was not to share the cost – but to replace the operation with Operation Triton, named after the mythical messenger to the Greek Gods. Its message is a grim one. Just six ships, two planes and one helicopter will be available. And their brief will not be to scour the seas for those in distress but to stay within 30 miles of the Italian coast to keep intruders out.

They will be run by the EU’s Frontex organisation whose budget is tiny at €100m a year – a drop in the unwelcoming ocean compared with the €60bn Europe spends on farm subsidies.  The UK is making no financial contribution to Triton. Britain’s immigration minister James Brokenshire made a mind-bending attempt to justify the government’s position in the House of Commons this week.

The Mare Nostrum rescue mission, he said, had created an unintended “pull factor” which had encouraged more migrants in makeshift boats to attempt the dangerous sea crossings. By way of proof he cited two facts. Before the Italian operation just 700 migrants a year died attempting the crossing. Once the operation began the figure leapt, with another 2,200 deaths in just six months. Ergo, the ministerial logic goes, the rescue system has caused an increase rather than a decrease in the problem.

This is either wilful sophistry or else a spectacular undergraduate logical fallacy. The contingency of two events does not necessitate a causal relationship. Mr Brokenthought offers no evidence to link Mare Nostrum with the increase in deaths – only a determination to look tough on immigration ahead of another by-election UKIP might win.  For those who think a bit harder there are other answers.

Recent history suggests more plausible causes for the increase. The Middle East is in turmoil from Iraq and Syria to Libya to Gaza (from whence a family of 19 perished on the waves last month). Lebanon and Jordan are brimming with displaced people. There is war and anarchic violence in Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Niger and severe human rights violations in Nigeria, the Congo, and a desolate Eritrea from which 4,000 young people are fleeing each month to avoid conscription. Poverty and hunger are commonplace. The world population of refugees has just passed 50m for the first time since the Second World War.

And how can Mare Nostrum rescues have caused the 150 per cent rise in illegal immigrants coming into Greece through Turkey in the first seven months of this year? Or the breakdown of the fences around Spain’s north African enclaves? Or the storming of a ferry by 150 illegal migrants in Calais the other day?

The attempt by Britain to wash its hands of all this is particularly repugnant given our military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan (where withdrawal might now boost migrant flows) and Libya, which is the point of departure of many of the overcrowded ramshackle migrant boats. That ought to sharpen the moral imperative for us to help rather than hinder.

It is not as though there is nothing else we could do. But action needs to be taken long before migrants begin to cram into overcrowded boats. Where there are effective governments in North Africa, as in Tunisia and Morocco, the EU needs to use its considerable economic clout to encourage African states to manage migration outflows. We could provide close-to-shore patrol vessels for African authorities to intercept traffickers’ boats before they get far out to sea.

And the EU needs to do more to encourage all its members to take their share of refugees. Last year 70 per cent of asylum seekers where taken by just five countries: Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and the UK. Mr Brokenshire should be pressing for changes on the highwire of EU politics before whipping away the safety net from desperate people boarding death-trap boats.

There is a cruel irony in the inability of the EU to find ships for search-and-rescue at a time when key figures in Nato are talking loftily about using the West’s hospital ships and heavy-lift helicopters to conduct a night and day operation in Africa to tackle the  Ebola epidemic. They fear the spread of disease. By contrast the dead bodies of boat people washed up on the shores of Lampedusa bring a contagion which is merely moral.


Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester


from The Independent on Sunday

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