It was sadly under-reported in UK media, but on 7 June 2016, the world reached an horrific milestone: 10,000 men, women and children have died in the Mediterranean sea since the start of the international refugee crisis.
In short, we have succeeded in turning a shared holiday resort – used by Europeans, Africans and people from the Middle East alike – into a mass grave.
The generally agreed date at which the international refugee crisis is accepted to have begun is 1 January 2014, despite the fact that many European nations failed to notice until far later, and that refugees had been crossing the Mediterranean – up to that point, mainly to the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Malta – for well over three decades before that.
In 2014, two things changed: first, the EU ended its Mare Nostrum sea programme, under which all member states were supposed to contribute cash and/or materials to the rescuing of refugees at risk on – or often in – the sea.
Mare Nostrum had been inspired by the death the previous October of 359 people less than a quarter of a mile from Lampedusa. But after just 12 months, the Italian government noted that it, alone, had contributed any cash or ships to the programme, and that it could not continue to run it alone.
Though some EU member states (notably Sweden and Germany) pledged once again to contribute, others, including the UK, simply refused, bringing the one-year life-saving mission to an end.
Despite her government’s purely financial reasons for refusing to save drowning human beings, the UK’s Baroness Anelay told Parliament that the decision had in fact been made ‘because the programme is a pull-factor for those who want to come to the EU’.
In effect, Anelay’s argument was that ambulances ‘encourage’ sickness, by rescuing those who need urgent medical treatment.
Secondly, in 2014, the Syrian Civil War entered its fourth consecutive year, while the Taliban continued to make ground in Afghanistan and IS did the same in Iraq, inspiring large numbers of Syrians to give up hope of a future in their home country, and tens of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis to flee their own home states in terror.
Those men, women and children, entered the EU at Greece, vastly increasing the number of people entering the political bloc in search of safety.
In 2014, 216,000 people were estimated to have arrived in the EU by sea. In 2015, 1.1 million. The major factor in this difference in number was a huge increase in the number of people arriving from the East. So far this year – and we are just entering the season during which numbers normally increase – 206,985 people have made the crossing.
But despite the huge difference in numbers of those crossing, the death toll has been grimly consistent: 3,500 people are estimated* to have died in 2014; 3,771 drowned last year, and in fact in the last five months, the numbers appear to have vastly increased, to 2,856 men, women and children dying at sea – by far the greatest number of people to have died in the Mediterranean in any five-month period.
*All of these figures are estimates: because the EU’s member states – led by the UK and Hungary – have voted to prevent the EU responding to this crisis in a humane and sensible way, we cannot even be sure how many desperate people have died; there is literally no process in place to count: all figures in this and other pieces have come from IOM and UNHCR.
The reason for this is almost as bitter as the numbers themselves. Though the largest number of people arrived in the EU from the East in 2015 (by far: around four in every five people to have entered last year arrived in Greece), the crossing from Turkey to Greece – as short as five miles in some cases – is far safer* than the much longer crossing from South to North.
*Not that this crossing is safe – several high-profile deaths on this crossing starkly indicate that there is no ‘safe crossing’ unless it is regulated and operated by a responsible actor, such as the EU.
Yet despite this, the EU’s focus remained locked on the Eastern crossing, by which the largest number of people were entering the EU, rather than on the Southern route, on which by far the largest number of people were – and are – dying.
That is, the EU has concentrated on keeping people out, rather than on keeping people alive.
Morally – and pragmatically – this is simply unacceptable.
Those of you reading this in the UK will be – perhaps by now painfully – aware that the state is considering leaving the EU. In the course of the ‘debate’ over the issue, some on the Left have argued that the bloc’s very failure to solve the international crisis may be reason enough to leave it.
It’s an understandable view, and at least based on justified frustration with genuine humanitarian failure.
But it is also a category error.
Because the EU is a multi-member organisation, which requires the support of its members to enact policy. In some cases a majority vote is all that is required, but in others – included its proposals to address the international refugee crisis, unanimous agreement must be reached.
The EU – like all similar organisations (including, for example, the UN) can only be as ‘good’ as its least far-sighted, most obstructive member. And on this issue, the United Kingdom is that member.
On three occasions last year, the EU attempted to pass regulations which would have set targets for refugee entrant numbers, by suggesting the systematic distribution of men, women and children in need of safe places to stay, among its 28 members.
The advantages of this proposal were clear: every EU state would know exactly how many refugees were within their borders, where they were from, the language they spoke, religion they follow, and abilities and requirements of each; those people would be making a contribution to the society in which they lived; the EU’s member states would be able to act in the knowledge that none of them was ‘acting alone’; the EU would have made a clear commitment to helping people most in need of assistance, whose lives were torn apart and threatened by war, terror, chaos and shortage; and – by making the process legal – could massively reduce the number of deaths among those people attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
It was derailed by the UK – which had already pledged to ‘deal’ with the international crisis by spending £17m on fences and dogs to prevent desperate men, women and children leaving Calais –along with Hungary (which itself was erecting fences along its borders to prevent people travelling through it to reach Germany and Sweden), and in later votes, Spain, Denmark and Poland.
And the result has been predictable – indeed exactly as was predicted by many of us at the time: the end of Mare Nostrum has resulted in more death. The refusal to allow the EU to act has resulted in more death: continuous, unnecessary death.
The EU’s latest proposal – also announced this week – is a far weaker and more flawed model.
It now hopes to spend – and ‘promote investment’ of – up to $68bn/€60bn in states including Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal, in an effort to ‘dissuade’ people from leaving those states.
The plan offers almost none of the advantages of the EU’s previous ideas.
It will not succeed as a means of preventing people attempting to reach Europe. First, because states such as Niger simply fail to grow enough food for their populations each year – private-sector, profit-driven investment is extremely likely to offer any real solution to this.
Second, because many of those who leave their homes are forced to by terror and oppression: even if such investment could help in the longer-term (and this is by no means guaranteed), it would at best be a medium-term project. But the international refugee situation – and the reasons for people fleeing their homes – are immediate. A medium- to long-term plan simply cannot be applied to an immediate emergency.
Nor will NATO proposals (due for consideration on 8 July) – to target boats crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa and return those who travel on them to ‘reintegration centres’ in states including Eritrea and Sudan – either improve the lives of desperate men, women and children (who are, after all, fleeing those states) or prevent people from boarding unsafe boats and risking death on the Mediterranean.
It is time – way beyond time, in actual fact – to allow the EU to do what it is uniquely well-positioned to achieve.
It can centrally-organise a system by which people fleeing war, terror, chaos, oppression and shortage can be safely transported from Turkey and Libya to safe places in Europe and have their applications to remain (made after – not before – they arrive) processed swiftly and efficiently.
It can centrally set which states how many of those men, women and children will move to, ensuring no single state is ‘overwhelmed’, or left to feel it ‘alone’ is being asked to solve a truly international crisis, and ensuring that the EU itself – and as a result all of its states – know exactly how many people are in each part of the bloc.
By contrast, at present, desperate people are dying at sea, people are entering the EU despite the efforts of the UK, Hungary and others to keep them out, and those people – because they are not allowed to work in the legitimate economies of EU member states – are working in the black economy, failing to contribute to the states in which they live not because they are not working, but because their work is actively prevented from being useful to their new, temporary, home nations.
The EU can ensure those people’s work is not wasted – that it contributes to the wider benefit of each of its member states – it can ensure that they have safe, decent places to stay until it is safe for them to return home, and it can stop the senseless, avoidable slaughter at sea.
In fact, no other political bloc has ever been better-placed to do these things.
But it can only do so if its member-states allow it to.
More than 10,000 men, women and children have now drowned in the Mediterranean. A comparatively calm sea, a holiday destination shared by the people of three continents, is now a mass grave for innocent and desperate people.
This must end. The EU must do what is right for humanity, and right for it. In order to do so, its member states must stop preventing it from acting.
In Libya, one of the two centres of the international refugee crisis and the state through which far the largest number of people to have died on the Mediterranean travelled, attacks on my former hometown are reported to be making headway against IS.
Militia members allied with (though it should be noted, not officially commanded by or answerable to) Libya’s internationally-imposed ‘Government of National Unity’ – most of them based in Misrata – have been fighting IS on the outskirts of the terror group’s only Libyan stronghold, Sirte, where I was based in 2011-12.
On the face of it, this is certainly good news – IS is a despicable organisation which has chased the innocent civilians of Sirte from their homes, and killed many of them – including friends of mine. Equally, though the actual danger posed to other states by IS in Libya (at present, at least) has been significantly overplayed, there is no doubt that its position only a few hundred miles’ sea crossing from Europe is potentially extremely negative for the long term.
Any chance that they are facing defeat and expulsion not only from Sirte, but also from Libya, is to be welcomed.
But it’s also important to be aware of the wider context. Because this is not the first time the Misrata militia has engaged IS since it seized Sirte early in 2015 – although it is the first time there has been any serious suggestion that it is making any significant advances against it.
In fact, the Misrata forces are the only group in Libya to have attacked IS – (the first time was when they were pledged to but not commanded by the General National Congress (GNC), a government roundly dismissed as illegitimate by the international community). The ‘Operation Dignity’ militia; another illegal armed group, led by warlord and instigator of the second Libyan civil war (now in its third year) Khalifa Haftar, who had international backing, has completely refused to engage IS at any time (click here for more detail on this).
The Misratan force is also – as detailed in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis –the illegal militia which committed the only documented war crime of Libya’s first civil war (the ethnic cleansing of Tawergha during the conflict in which Muammar Ghaddafi, who the Misratan militia fought against, was defeated and killed) and played a central part in undermining successive post-war governments between 2011 and 2014.
Equally, the wider political context in Libya is also vitally important.
Because as detailed on this site on several previous occasions, Libya has three entirely illegitimate and entirely powerless governments. Until February this year, the GNC in Tripoli (backed by, though not in control of, the illegal Libya Fajr militia, which included the Misrata militias) and the House of Representatives (HOR) in Tobruk, far in Libya’s east (backed by, though not in control of Haftar’s Operation Dignity militia) sat powerless as Dignity, Fajr, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Al Sharia militia and IS in Libya fought the second Libyan Civil War, which continues today.
The HOR was backed by the international community, but had been elected on a turnout of just 16 per cent as the civil war raged across Libya, and was ruled to be illegitimate by Libya’s High Court in late 2014, while the GNC re-formed only when the HOR refused (because of the war) to sit in Tripoli.
But in December, soon after IS’ attack on Paris (and Beirut, though the latter was considered less important than that on Paris, at least by EU member states and the US), the international community – led by the US – decided to impose an entirely new government on Libya.
Details on this extraordinarily-poorly thought-through initiative can be found here, but in short, in its desperation to be invited to bomb IS-held positions in Libya, the US and EU forced the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to rush into existence a ‘Government of National Accord’, which the former believed would be more likely than either the GNC or HOR to make such an invitation.
The result was grimly predictable: neither the HOR nor GNC have accepted the GNA, which has been unable to gain the support of more than 40 per cent of local government bodies, and at the same time, the Second Libyan Civil War continues to wreck lives, and make Libya an impossible place for refugees from states torn apart by war to remain.
The GNA was forced – under warnings from both other ‘governments’ as well as Dignity and Fajr – to hide in a guarded Tripoli naval base, and though it has since ‘secured’ some official government ministry buildings, it remains an unelected, insecure and totally illegitimate government, the third Libya must suffer.
In order to attempt to gain some small degree of recognition – and perhaps greater support inside and outside Libya – it may be vital for the GNA to be seen to be acting strongly and successfully against IS.
And this is a final reason why we should be guarded about the GNA’s claims of decisive progress against IS (it should be noted that UK newspaper The Guardian reported on Thursday 9 June that Sirte had already been liberated – it still has not been).
Any such progress would be greatly welcome to anyone with an interest in human life, the international refugee crisis, Libya and its people and the European Union’s members. For me, there is the added incentive of having lived in Sirte, and counting some of its residents as my friends.
But we must not make the mistake of simply believing that things are true just because the GNA – which is a body with clear and understandable reason to be seen to be ‘succeeding’ against IS – tells us they are.
As one friend from Sirte noted: ‘Syria’s military is supposed to be one of the region’s strongest, and is backed against IS by several international air forces. How can it be that they are having little or no success, but these Libyan amateurs are?’