This piece was inspired by my genuine outrage – which I still feel, extremely strongly – at the firing of stun grenades by police at innocent men, women and children on the Macedonian border last Saturday (22 August).
Since I completed it on Tuesday 25, seventy-one people have been found dead in the back of a lorry travelling through Austria, and yesterday (Thursday 27) around 450 people drowned in the Mediterranean when the boats they were on sank off the Libyan coast near to Zuwara.
That is, in the last 30 or so hours (I write early on Friday afternoon) another 521 people have died. Early, avoidably, and unacceptably.
As if that were not depressing enough, what I realise, looking at the piece I have written below, is that it basically does not require changes in the light of such massive injustice and disaster. What I wrote earlier this week applies today, just as it did on Tuesday. It has been true since before this particular crisis began, and will remain true until we address the causes, rather than the outcomes, of people’s desperation.
It would be wonderful to be able to say ‘let’s make sure these people did not die in vain’ but the truth is they did. They died early, and unnecessarily, while attempting nothing more than staying alive and finding somewhere safe to stay until they could return home. They will never achieve that.
It would be foolish and presumptuous of me to ‘dedicate’ this piece to the 521 men, women and children who lost their lives while seeking safety on 27 August 2015.
But I hope it is acceptable to ask you to remember them, and the thousands like them, while you read the piece below.
Things have gone far enough.
On Saturday 22 August, on the Macedonian border with Greece, police officers fired stun grenades on people who were attempting to enter the country – most likely, in the majority of cases, to travel through it to reach EU states to the north and west.
This is not a piece to criticise Macedonia’s government or police – though both have acted entirely unacceptably.
But this outrage is a moment at which we must all stop and take a serious, critical look at where we are, and how we progress from there, to a saner, more acceptable position.
This summer, for the first time, the continent of Europe has been forced to actively pay attention to the world’s greatest international crisis: the millions of homeless people, desperately attempting to find places to be allowed to exist in safety.
There have been warnings.
In eight days in October 2013, more than 400 people – the majority of them from sub-Saharan Africa, but others from the Middle East and North Africa – drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
They had been attempting to cross from Libya to reach Lampedusa, the island which, as an Italian territory, is the nearest EU-owned land to the African continent.
Their attempt was by no means unusual. While in Libya, I met several people who had travelled from all over Africa and the Middle East, who had fled oppression, torture, war, medicine and food shortage in their homelands (which included Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, the Palestinian territories – and later, Syria) to reach Libya and attempt to cross from there to Europe. Many of their stories are told in my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis.
Nor was it unusual for the attempts to fail. While living and working in Tunisia (where I was based at Djerba, and worked at Choucha refugee camp), I regularly walked on the beach early in the morning, noting items of clothing washed onto the shore after attempts to cross the Mediterranean had ended in the capsizing and sinking of boats close to the coast.
What was unusual, however, was the scale of the disaster. More than 400 deaths by drowning in one week and one day shocked the EU into action. It reacted by setting up Mare Nostrum – a search and rescue operation designed to save people from drowning in the sea shared by Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
Sadly, and in what it will become clear is a regular and depressing occurrence, economics got in the way of the EU’s attempts to save thousands of people from drowning.
Mare Nostrum was paid for in its entirety by Italy, and in October 2014 it told the EU that in a period of economic crisis, it could not continue to fund the rescue scheme – other states would have to contribute what they had promised, or Mare Nostrum would end.
The response from Italy’s fellow members of the world’s richest single geo-political bloc to contribute to saving the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise drown was both horrendous and predictable: if we have to pay, saving lives must end.
Some states, including the UK, attempted to hide the reason for their refusal to pay to prevent thousands of deaths. Lady Anerley, a UK Foreign Office Minister, claimed that Mare Nostrum was ‘an unlimited pull factor’ – a claim that was the equivalent of arguing that ambulances ‘encourage’ people to contract life-threatening illnesses or serious injuries.
As an indication of the transparent inaccuracy of this statement, people from Syria, who had by that point suffered three years of grim civil war and constituted an ever-increasing percentage of those attempting to make the Mediterranean crossing to Europe, referred (and still refer) to the vessels they hoped might carry them as the ‘death boats’: the ‘pull factor’ was simply never a reality.
I have written extensively about what was: the ‘push’ factors, which in Syria include a bitter and grim three-sided conflict, in which the government and rebel forces regularly – almost casually – slaughter civilians, while IS tortures them as well. That conflict is now in its fifth year, shows no signs of stopping (which in itself would be enough to steadily increase people’s desperation) and whichever side eventually ‘won’ seems extremely likely to carry out further outrages against those it believes fought against or opposed it since March 2011.
The 11 million people who have fled their homes in Syria have been pushed from them by war, terror, torture, food and medicine shortage and death.
The four million of those who have left their country did not do so out of choice, but out of sheer horror and fear of what awaited them in Syria, and the thousands of people to have boarded unsafe boats, risking their entire existence for the chance of finding somewhere to live were not ‘attracted’ by the chance of being hauled from the sea if that boat sank.
In North Africa – specifically Libya – the situation is similar, though the people involved originate from a larger number of states.
Migrants from across sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East had been welcomed by Muammar Ghaddafi, who claimed his ‘borders were open’ to anyone facing hardship – conflict, terror, torture, lack of food or access to basic medicines. The number of such states is depressingly high, and the places people arrived from – Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Somalia, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia – distressingly familiar.
Many of those who entered Libya stayed there, finding in the state a place to create a life. But the first Libyan Civil War – reminding many of wars in their own states – forced them once again to flee their homes, joined this time by some Libyan natives.
It was at this point, while I lived in Tunisia and then Libya, that I met these people, talked to them about their lives, their escape first from their homeland and then from Libya itself, and experienced first-hand the devastation wreaked upon Libya – not least by NATO missiles. Their stories, and my experience of those states, make up the majority of my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis.
After Ghaddafi’s death, Libya remained devastated, but was at least peaceful. People continued to enter, some with the express intention of reaching the EU, but others prepared to settle in North Africa, at least until it was safe to return to their homes.
But in May last year, war once again broke out in Libya. This time, instead of two ‘sides’ – broadly one pro-government, and one fighting to remove the government, this one centred on three illegal militias, two of which support equally illegitimate and powerless ‘governments’ and a third Al Qaeda-affiliated organisation. Later, IS entered the conflict, meaning Libya is now locked into a vicious four-sided conflict which has already lasted almost twice as long as its first civil war, and is destroying and ending people’s lives with grim predictability.
As a result, the people attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa now include Libyans as well as the sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern diaspora. Their stories are told in The Toss of a Coin.
The idea that people were ‘encouraged’ to flee Syria and Libya by the fact that they might be rescued from the sea was never reality. Lady Anerley’s words were designed to hide and excuse a chilling economic decision: the EU – the world’s richest geo-political bloc – was prepared to let thousands of people drown in order to save money.
The results were no less awful for being predictable. Between 13 April and 15 August 2015, more than 1,600 people have drowned in a series of disasters on the Mediterranean. In the first quarter of this year, the death rate on the Mediterranean – the ‘holiday sea’ shared by North Africa, the Middle East and Europe – had rocketed to 46.5 per thousand people, ten times higher than the death rate in the same quarter of 2014 (4.2 deaths per thousand people).
I have mentioned Lady Anerley in relation to these deaths, because she is a UK government minister with a direct connection to them. Of course, she is by no means solely responsible for them, and is rather the spokesperson and an apologist for the deaths of thousands due to an economic calculation – of a policy which killed thousands simply to save cash.
At this stage, it may be worth noting exactly how much money the UK has saved by refusing to pay to save lives at sea. Each year, the costs of Mare Nostrum – if shared equally between the EU’s 28 member states – would have been £188,929 per state per month; an annual cost of less than £2.3m.
To put that in perspective, the UK government has, in the last month, spent more than £7m to increase the heights of fences designed to prevent people at Calais accessing the railhead in an attempt to enter the UK.
Mention of Calais brings us to the ‘story’ of the summer: not the unprecedented level of death on the Mediterranean Sea, or the horrific conflicts and inequalities which ae driving people from their homes onto vessels they know are unsafe, but the fact that there are people at Calais attempting to enter the UK illegally.
In recent weeks, I have written and spoken extensively on this issue, both here and in a range of media. I don’t intend to run through the entire gamut of the debate again here, but I will reiterate a few basic points.
First of all, there either never was a ‘crisis’ at Calais, or there were two, neither of which was dealt with by the UK government.
That is, three of the UK government’s most senior figures (Prime Minister David Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond) referred to the situation at Calais as a ‘crisis’ as if it somehow threatened the UK.
It did not. There were 5,000 people at Calais (the number has now decreased to close to 3,000) – equivalent to 0.00008 per cent of the UK’s population. Of that number, fewer than half (roughly 2,000) actually attempted to enter the UK. There is simply no way this can possibly be regarded as a ‘threat’ to the United Kingdom.
In their eagerness to emphasise the level of this non-existent ‘threat’, government ministers have also attempted to argue that the UK is somehow the preferred destination for people fleeing Africa and the Middle East. David Cameron, in his speech in Vietnam late in July, claimed that ‘swarms’ of people were attempting to enter the UK, citing ‘plenty of jobs’ as the reason.*
*This is as sensible a place as any to raise the question of what is meant by ‘economic migrants’ – a phrase which is used to label certain people as ‘underserving’ of a place in Europe.
First of all, we must note that any and all attempts to pretend the majority of people currently seeking new places to live are ‘economic migrants’ are false. The six origin points from which the majority of people are entering the EU are Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan. These are simply not people who woke up one morning and decided to risk their lives for a job in Starbucks in Bournemouth.
Secondly, we need to take a very close look at what the worlds ‘economic migrant’ actually mean in this context. Because there are certainly people who have left their homes in order to improve their lives. But those people – especially in the case of those travelling through Libya (the majority of whom land in Italy) – face a shortage of food, or are unable to access basic medicine. These are ‘economic migrants’. How can we seriously argue they should be sent home to starve or die early from preventable disease?
The figures simply don’t bear this out. The UN reports that between 1 January and 30 June, 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean to enter the EU. The 5,000 people at Calais represent less than one twenty-seventh of that number. There are 28 EU member states.
The numbers suggest strongly that in fact, the UK is the preferred ‘destination’ (most people wish to return to their homes as soon as they can) for only the exact number of people one would expect if every single EU member state were as popular as one another.
Nor does Philip Hammond’s claim in Singapore earlier this month (August) that ‘millions’ of African people are hoping to enter the EU and will ‘threaten our standards of living’ stand up to much analysis.
Not only are the numbers wrong (of the 137,000 who travelled in the first six months of this year, roughly 80,000 people came from an African state: at that rate, it would take 12 years for two million African people to arrive in the EU. Though we should note that by the middle of August, 248,000 people had arrived – 158,000 in Greece, and 90,000 in Italy, the vast majority of those landing at Greece were of Syrian or Afghan origin. The rate at which African people – almost all of whom have come through Libya to land at Italy – have arrived has remained steady), the implication – that the EU is the place most people are travelling to – is also, simply, incorrect.
The state with the most refugees living within its borders is Turkey. It is followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan,.
Turkey has just over two million Syrians living within its borders. In Jordan, the Al Za’atari refugee camp is the state’s third largest ‘city’. In Lebanon, to which 1.125 million Syrians have fled, one in five people is a Syrian refugee. One in four are refugees of some description.
Not only are these states not part of the EU, only one of them is a member of the G20 (Turkey. Its status in the group is ‘developing economy’). And although there certainly are people attempting to reach and find safe places to live in the EU, the vast majority – almost 99 per cent, in the case of Syrians fleeing the bitter war in their homeland – are not. They have travelled to far less wealthy regions, to await a moment at which they can safely return.
Of course, none of this is to suggest there is not a crisis. There are. At Calais, 3,000 people are stuck ‘between’ two of the world’s richest nations, both of which individually have as much money as 128 of the world’s states combined. They have lived for up to six months in one-person tents on the edge of the Channel, and lack access to basic medicine, as well as suffering a shortage of food and clean water.
In a previous blog, I have already pointed out that the UK public can take some credit for their response to this situation, and reiterated my call for the UK and French government to provide decent accommodation for those awaiting a decision on entry to the UK.
But the wider problem requires a far more committed, complex, and far-reaching approach.
There are now officially in excess of 58m people who have been forced from their homes by war, food shortage, oppression, torture and terror. The number is likely to be far higher, as this figure includes only those registered as refugees.
They are driven to desperate measures – from risking death on the Mediterranean to crossing the Sahara in dilapidated vehicles – because they feel, correctly, that they have no choice. That an early and probably unpleasant death is what faces them if they do not act.
This is not just a crisis. It is the single greatest crisis facing humanity in the modern age.
So what can be done? Certainly, it would be extremely helpful if all wars across the world were to stop, immediately. Of the 22 ongoing wars currently taking place across the world, all but two are happening in Africa and Asia.
As we cannot stop them immediately, we must act in other ways instead.
The ‘individual approach’ has failed. States have proven too irresponsible to ‘control’ the crisis themselves.
Hungary has built a wall, Macedonia fired stun grenades on men, women and children desperate to travel through the state. The UK has left people to suffer on the banks of the Channel, ignoring them until finally responding to their plight by increasing the height of the fences at Calais, and setting the dogs on the people there.
Despite the opposition of the UK, Spain and Hungary, it is time for the EU to enact an organised, united approach to the current crisis, which must include decent accommodation at all ‘entry points’ and a compulsory quota for each state (based on percentage, not sheer number), enforcing their responsibility to provide desperate people with safe places to live.
In the longer term, however, even this will not be enough.
Because the primary cause – by which I mean the root cause – of almost all ‘migration’ is economic.
The Arab Spring, for example (and the actions of several states, including some NATO states, within it) is the cause of the wars in both Libya and Syria, which are themselves at the heart of the grave international crisis we face.
But as detailed in The Toss of a Coin, the Arab Spring itself grew out of the most recent
global economic crisis (the fact that dictators rule/d in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria may well have pushed those states over the edge, but it was the global economic crisis which meant people could not put food on their table, and pushed them into street-protest in the first place. We should not forget that Greece, Spain, the UK and to a smaller extent Italy and Portugal also faced their own days of protest and chaos), and as detailed in previous blogs, a drought unprecedented in history was a contributory factor to the Syrian iteration of the so-called ‘Spring’.
Not only that, but the world has never once produced too little food for every single person on Earth to eat a balanced, healthy diet, but every day, people suffer malnutrition, and others die of starvation.
It is not acceptable for us in the EU to simply sit and pretend to be surprised that under such circumstances, faced with death by bullet, by disease, by beating or by starvation, people’s eyes turn to it – the richest geo-political bloc in the world.
It may be difficult to accept that the same economic system from which we benefit (though even here, in the world’s fifth richest state, there are a shameful one million people who rely on food banks to eat) is the root cause of children being attacked with stun grenades in Europe, that this system had already forced them to spend months, maybe years of their lives dodging missiles, bullets and fire in their homelands.
But that is the world in which we live. A world in which no-one needs to starve, yet millions have. In which people hungry for power and money kill one another for sums which are tiny compared to those sitting in off-shore bank accounts doing nothing other than accruing yet more money without being put to any use at all.
That is humanity, in the 21st Century. A place where bankers’ reckless behaviour – and some extremely wealthy people’s all-consuming desire to have yet more money – causes economies to collapse, and situations in parts of the world to deteriorate so seriously that our governments end up paying police officers to open fire on children who have already faced horror like we will never – and no-one should ever – have to face.
If we wish to prevent desperation; if we wish to improve the lives of people around the world; or more pragmatically, if we wish to reduce desperation to reduce the number of people fleeing their homes and attempting to enter the EU, we have to start where the problem lies.
It may not be easy, or especially palatable to many, but if we wish to solve the greatest crisis of our age, it’s time we started redistributing our money. The alternative is simply more death, more horror, and the ever-continuing crisis of our age.