Death on the Mediterranean: the EU, and the avoidable loss of lives at sea

Reading Time: 4 minutes Migrant Bodies on the beach

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.

 

0
This entry was posted in Home and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Death on the Mediterranean: the EU, and the avoidable loss of lives at sea

  1. Laura says:

    What is your picture of the ‘single wealthiest political bloc ever to have existed on Earth’ after assisted travel has been made available to the citizens of every failed state and a billion people transition? If it is your preferred solution to suffering and death; once that has been solved for those millions, then what is the picture for the remaining millions of the Middle East and Africa, for the European millions, for the rest of the world, ongoing for the rest of history after the biggest mass migration of all time has been sealed?. What is the picture for world peace and economic prosperity, something we never managed to solve despite Miss Worlds and Bob Marley best one liners, once we all get to witness continuing efforts to reconcile the complexity of conflicting emotional, religious, economic and environment resources but this time concentrated in a much smaller surface area. Is this a beautiful and inspiring picture? Is this the wrong question?. What are the hopes and expectations of someone who advocates this precise solution? Please share the rationale.

    0
    • admin says:

      Dear Laura,
      First of all, thank you for reading. And thank you too for responding with questions. It’s far too common for people to either refuse to read things they think they’ll disagree with, or simply to walk away without attempting to find out more about what other people think.
      With that in mind, I’ll try to answer your questions below:

      1) What is your picture of the ‘single wealthiest political bloc ever to have existed on Earth’ after assisted travel has been made available to the citizens of every failed state and a billion people transition?
      OK. So the EU is, by any reckoning, the single richest political bloc ever to have existed. As an indicator, the UK – which is only the second richest state in the EU – is the fifth richest state in the world and has more money than 142 other states combined.
      The amounts of money we are talking about here are not just enormous, they are breathtakingly huge by global historical proportions. Whatever anyone tells you about the situation the world is in right now, please believe one thing: anyone who tells you ‘we can’t afford’ to help the people who need our help right now is incorrect. Whether they are incorrect accidentally, or deliberately, I don’t know. But they have the numbers wrong.
      Here’s why: first, because your fears are of a far larger number of people moving than actually want to or are doing so.
      Nothing like ‘one billion’ people want to come to the EU at the moment. As a marker of that, just 1.1 million people did so in the whole of 2015.
      You mention ‘every failed state’ – there is at present just one officially failed state on Earth: Somalia. Yes, of course Somalis are escaping Somalia and trying to find refuge elsewhere, but the entire population of Somalia is just 10.5 million people (the EU’s total population is around 582 million).
      Of course, I realise you are also concerned about those fleeing wars, terror groups and oppressive regimes, too. And they certainly do exist – AND people certainly do need to be safe from them. But even then, the TOTAL number of people to have left Syria (out of a starting population of 23 million) is 4.8 million people. Most of them are in Turkey (2.7m), Lebanon (1.125m) and Jordan (700,000) and in fact just 400,000 came to the EU in 2015.
      Now I realise 400,000 seems a lot, but it’s actually about 0.0006 per cent of the total population of the EU. Even if all 4.8m people had come, that would still be less than one per cent of the EU’s population.
      Also, let’s be clear about something. Turkey, which is far less wealthy than the UK, has 2.7 million Syrian refugees (Turkey in fact has the largest number of refugees in its population of any state in the world: Lebanon has the highest proportion – one in four people living in Lebanon right now is a refugee). The 28 states of the EU have 400,000 between them. So Turkey has almost seven times as many Syrian refugees as the whole of the EU combined.
      And bear in mind that the UK is richer than Turkey on its own. So is France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands. That’s eight states who – on their own – have more money than Turkey, yet Turkey is considered capable of caring for 2.7m Syrians. So you needn’t worry that the EU can’t do the same. It certainly can.
      I know you will be aware that we (the EU) have promised to give Turkey €6bn over the next three years to help it cope. But did you know that’s just 1.25 per cent of the EU’s annual aid budget? And that THAT budget is made up of only a tiny part of each member state’s annual expenditure? So the EU could certainly afford it – and far, far more.
      Now, I know it can be tempting to think ‘well, if Turkey is getting that money, why should we need to take anyone?’
      But the point is that the Syrians fleeing war are not Turkish. They do not speak Turkish, and most of them DO speak English (of course, most African refugees speak at least one of French and English), AND if we are to consider the change to the make-up of the states involved, then 2.7 million new people in a nation of 70 million (Turkey) is certain to make a difference. But 4.8m in a region of 582 million people – who already speak different languages and have different cultural traditions – is likely to have a far smaller effect.
      So the ‘challenge’ is much smaller than you fear, and we can certainly afford it.
      Equally, these are people who will not need to be ‘looked after’ long. They are mainly able-bodied people willing and able to work, and who have no intention of being ‘looked after’. They just need a safe place to stay and work while their own country is impossible to live in.
      2) If it is your preferred solution to suffering and death; once that has been solved for those millions, then what is the picture for the remaining millions of the Middle East and Africa, for the European millions, for the rest of the world, ongoing for the rest of history after the biggest mass migration of all time has been sealed?
      It most certainly is my preferred solution to suffering and death. We are lucky, in the EU, to have the opportunity to save innocent people from suffering and dying. Why on Earth would we not do so? Because if we don’t, they will suffer and die. That can’t be what people actually want?
      Of course I can’t know everything about the future. But what I’d suggest is that while people need help, and there are other regions of the world who can help them, those regions should help them. That’s not a great deal to ask, and it’s certainly deliverable.
      3) What is the picture for world peace and economic prosperity, something we never managed to solve despite Miss Worlds and Bob Marley best one liners, once we all get to witness continuing efforts to reconcile the complexity of conflicting emotional, religious, economic and environment resources but this time concentrated in a much smaller surface area. Is this a beautiful and inspiring picture? Is this the wrong question?. What are the hopes and expectations of someone who advocates this precise solution? Please share the rationale.
      OK. So I can’t speak for Bob Marley (never been crazy about his music, I must admit. Always preferred noisier stuff, to be honest) or Miss Worlds, but in fact the majority of wars currently being fought on this planet come down to one thing: cash. People who have very little of it, and who experience increasing desperation as a result, often do desperate things.
      To take Syria as an example, the war there is not about ‘religion’: even IS, which pretends to be fighting about religion and in any case only got involved after the war had already been taking place for more than two years, is actually fighting to set up a state; because that’s where the money is.
      In fact, the war really began as a result of three things. First, the death of Bashar Al Assad’s older brother. He was supposed to be President, while Bashar went to University and studied to be an ophthalmologist in the UK. But his brother was killed in a car crash, so he was called back. He did his training in Lebanon, where he was the head of Syria’s military occupation of the state. As a result, he learnt that when there’s a problem, you can respond with force.
      Problem was… Second. In 2008, the longest and most serious drought to hit Syria throughout its (6,000 year) recorded history, began. Because people couldn’t grow food, they headed into the cities, where as a result there was civil unrest. This unrest was not because of people being in the cities, but because the government led by Assad was too bad at its job to respond and react sensibly. Instead, it reacted with weapons.
      The third factor also began in 2008 – the global economic crash. The effect of this on Syria was similar to that on many other North African and Middle Eastern states – it took food from the poorest, and money from the middle classes, making everyone angry and sending people out onto the streets, where… Assad opened fire on them.
      This isn’t a war about religion – Syria was a secular state with communities of many different religious groups – or even about resources, really. It’s about an uprising against an unpopular and violent leader.
      Similarly in Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan. Cash is the driver, rather than religion or race. Though of course those things do also play a part, but the point is they become important because and when people are desperate; they are not the driver of that desperation.
      And so here’s how it ‘looks’. A relatively small number of people (last year, the 1 million refugees to the EU was 0.2 per cent of the EU’s total) arrive in the EU and need help for a short while. That help is given, because it can be very easily afforded and soon those who can become contributors and workers do so. Then, when the wars end, they can go home.
      I am not a person cheering for Armageddon here. We have the cash and the space, and we can help. The alternative is mass death. It’s not an alternative I can possibly support.
      I do hope you’re good, Rory

      0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *