Overnight last night (Sunday 17 and Monday 18 April), as many as 500 people (the minimum estimate by Monday evening was 400, the survivors claimed it was 100 more) drowned in the Mediterranean between North Africa and Italy.
It took the death toll on the Mediterranean this year to more than 1,200, and the total since January 2015 to more than 5,000 people.
That is, in 16 months, five thousand men, women and children have died on one of the world’s calmest large stretches of water, a sea which is a holiday destination for Europeans, North Africans and people from the Middle East alike.
There were 41 survivors – Ethiopians, Somalians, Egyptians and people from Sudan.
They had boarded a boat of around 240 people in Tobruk (which readers of this site will know is the city which houses the Libyan House of Representatives, one of the state’s three powerless and illegitimate governments), and said they had then been transferred to a second, larger boat, on which they joined 300 people.
This boat then capsized, with all but 41 people currently missing, presumed dead.
Later on Monday morning, six bodies were recovered along with 108 survivors when a dinghy capsized off the Libyan coast.
The incidents took place just one day before the first anniversary of the death of 800 men, women and children 60 miles off the coast of Libya.
And the timing is no coincidence.
Crossings from Libya – and to a lesser extent also Egypt and Tunisia – to Europe (most often Italy) have been understandably lower on people’s agenda than those from Turkey to Greece in the last 16 months, but they have been taking place every year for decades.
The reasons are simple, but worth noting once more. From all over Africa and the Middle East, people have needed to flee war (as in Somalia and Sudan), terror (as in Somalia), repressive regimes (Sudan, Egypt) and shortages caused by any or all of the above (Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia).
Libya, under Muammar Ghaddafi, was a destination for many of them, after he announced the state’s borders were open to ‘any and all’ people from Africa and the Middle East who needed refuge.
But traditionally, many people remained in Libya, where they found work and opportunity – at least for a while – and so while many boarded boats to attempt to reach Europe, many others stayed on land.
But in the five years since Ghaddafi’s death, the state has been starved of cash (see here for details) and since May 2014 has been mired in its second civil war. Its three governments are powerless to influence – far less end – the conflict now being fought between two opposing Libyan militias, Al-Qaeda members and IS in Libya.
And refugees entering the state – who have already left their home because of war, terror and shortage – have literally no reason or inclination to remain any longer than they have to.
But because the sea-crossing has been ongoing for far longer than that taking place from Turkey to Greece – the latter being largely the result of the Syrian Civil War – it has also ‘settled’ into a form of regularity. Crossings take place in Spring, Summer and Autumn, and tend to be far less regular in Winter, when it is considered that the 180 mile voyage to Italy is too dangerous.
That is, it is no coincidence that the drowning of 400-500 people on Sunday/Monday, and of 800 men, women and children on 20 April 2015 took place at almost exactly the same time of year: they took place on the first day of what is likely to be at least six months of desperate people, fleeing almost certain death in their home states, and risking likely death by drowning in the shared holiday resort of three continents.
And this year there is every possibility that numbers will be far higher than ever before. Not because there are more wars, terror groups, torturous regimes or people with too little to eat or lack of access to basic medicines, though there are an unacceptable, unjust, immoral number of those people, but because – as noted here – the EU has paid Turkey to shut down the shortest route by which refugees from the east can approach it.
We face a year in which those forced by the real fear of death at home will be forced to take the longest, most dangerous sea crossings to Europe.
We face – because of the deliberate blocking by EU member states including the UK, Hungary, Spain and others of initiatives which might have enabled the EU to safely and sensibly deal with the rise in the number of desperate innocent men, women and children fleeing death – the very real danger that this year will see an unprecedented number of people dying on the Mediterranean.
It is no exaggeration at all to note that if that happens, it will be entirely the fault of the UK, Hungary, Spain, Poland, Denmark and others – some of the world’s richest states, and all members of the single wealthiest political bloc ever to have existed on Earth – deliberately voting against all EU initiatives which might have helped them cross safely, and be ‘processed’ in a calm, sensible and organised way.
But it is still not too late.
The very fact that those member states have prevented the EU from organising a sensible and ordered response to the situation also means they can enable it to do so.
The EU can organise safe crossings of the Mediterranean for those who require them.
It can organise an application system which ensures everyone who needs a safe place to stay can have one.
It can provide shelter for those who need it, and help people to find work so they can pay for their own lives while they live within the EU.
It can ensure that people are distributed across its territory according to resource and fairness to each state within it.
It can ensure that no children miss out on vital months or years of schooling, and that no one needs to die of curable disease because of lack of access to basic medicines.
It can afford it. And it will actually benefit the EU, because it will, as a result, know exactly where each of the people it welcomes in are, and how long they have lived there, rather than at present scrambling and never having an accurate idea of which people are where, or how many are in each place.
And it will also, simply, be the right thing to do. This has become, sadly, an unfashionable idea in political and economic circles, but when ‘doing the right thing’ translates so simply to ‘preventing thousands more deaths of men, women and children’, it is impossible to justify doing anything else.
We stand on the edge of a mass death on a sea which has nurtured some of the world’s greatest civilisations. We have the money and the organisational skill to prevent it. There has never been a better time to act. We should seize it.